The Life and Legacy of First Lady Barbara Bush

By Jude Messler


Many Beacon students do not know much about Barbara Bush’s life. Her passing, though tragic, provides a new opportunity to recognize the impact she made on this country during her life.

First Lady Barbara Bush was laid to rest on Saturday, April 21st, four days after she died from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Mrs. Bush lived a long and joyous life; she will be remembered for her wit, charity, and family loyalty.

Barbara Bush–the wife of the 41st President and the mother of the 43rd– was born in 1925 to a wealthy New York publisher. She met George H. W. Bush at a Christmas party in 1941, and the two married in 1945. In 1966, George H. W. Bush was elected to Congress and the Bushes moved to Washington. As the wife of a Congressman, Barbara Bush was active in charity work and Republican women’s groups. After losing his 1970 bid for Senate, President Richard Nixon appointed George H. W. Bush as US ambassador of the UN. Once again, Mrs. Bush moved her family, this time to New York. Over the course of her life, she would move more than 29 times. When President Nixon asked George H. W. Bush to become Chairman of the RNC, Mrs. Bush advised against it, citing the political turmoil of the Watergate Scandal. Critics of the former First Lady have called her passive and distant. Yet she always had her husband’s ear. Despite Mrs. Bush’s advice, George H. W. Bush accepted Nixon’s offer and went on to lead the RNC until being appointed as Head of the US Liaison Office in the People’s Republic of China.

Three years later, George H. W. Bush was appointed CIA Director, and the Bushes returned to Washington DC. As CIA director, George H. W. Bush was prohibited from disclosing sensitive information to his wife. Mrs. Bush turned to presenting about her time in China and her volunteer work at hospices. Fortunately, her love of people and desire to “give back” gave her a clear purpose in a heated political climate. The experience also sensitized her to the prevalence of mental health issues across the nation.  

In 1980, Mrs. Bush’s husband made a bid for the White House. As his biggest supporter, Mrs. Bush advocated for her husband’s policies, yet she also made waves in the GOP primary with her pro-choice stance and her support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Although she loved and supported her husband, Mrs. Bush wasn’t afraid to show her individuality and hold fast to her own beliefs. Mr. Bush lost the primary but was selected as Ronald Reagan’s running mate. This Republican ticket went on to win the General Election, making Mrs. Bush the Second Lady.

Barbara served as Second Lady for eight years. During her time as the Vice President’s wife, she championed two big causes: literacy and homelessness. The Bushes’ son Neil had been diagnosed with dyslexia as a child and as a result, Mrs. Bush spent a lot of time researching literacy, coming to believe that homelessness and literacy rates were directly related.  From 1981 onward, Mrs. Bush traveled the country spreading awareness about illiteracy. In 1984, Mrs. Bush wrote a book, entitled “C. Fred’s Story” and donated all proceeds to literacy charities. Over the course of her life, she raised over one billion dollars for this cause. She also fundraised heavily for cancer research after her oldest daughter, Robin, died of leukemia in 1953.

Mrs. Bush became the First Lady in 1989 and continued to champion her signature cause of literacy. As First Lady, Mrs. Bush was known for her modesty, asking to use public transportation and commercial flights–to the horror of the Secret Service. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Mrs. Bush famously stated the government had no right to legislate against gay rights and abortion: “I hate abortions, but I could not make that choice for someone else.” She was politically radical for her time, even amongst Democrats.

While Mrs. Bush was incredibly popular, she still suffered a few public scandals. In 1984, she called Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate Geraldine Ferraro “something that rhymes with rich.” Famously, in 1990, Mrs. Bush was scheduled to give the commencement speech at Wellesley University, but the student body protested in opposition, saying that she was not “feminist enough.” Bush went to Wellesley and gave a speech that brought the graduates to their feet and went down as one of top 100 speeches in U.S history. To the all-female student body, she mused, “Who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the President’s spouse.” Then, addressing the larger audience, she said with a smile: “I wish him well!”

After George H. W. Bush lost the 1992 Presidential Election, Mrs. Bush continued to fight for literacy, eventually passing her passion on to her daughter-in-law, First Lady Laura Bush. Over the last 25 years of her life Mrs. Bush spent her time in the company of her husband, five children, 17 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. Known by her family as the “enforcer,” Mrs. Bush never lost her take-charge attitude. She watched her sons become the Governors of Florida and Texas, and eventually, her oldest son become President. On Tuesday, April 17th, she died peacefully, holding the hand of the husband she had loved for over 75 years.