Barbara Bush, who has died at the age of 92, was a feminist’s nightmare. She dropped out of Smith College, from which the women’s lib movement would later explode, to marry and raise a family. Firmly independent but a dutiful wife, she was a liberal on abortion and gay rights but learned to keep mum for her husband’s sake. She was also tougher than him but ploughed her energy into stiffening his spine. As First Lady, she was content to be the strong woman behind a successful man and was proud to be known to millions of Americans for her clam chowder and chocolate chip cookie recipes. ‘I don’t fool around with his office and he doesn’t fool around with my household,’ she said, drawing an unfashionable line between the personal and political.
For all she presented as a well-manicured bluebonnet she was fierce as a Texas bobcat, especially in defence of her family. Asked what she made of Geraldine Ferraro, her husband’s rival for the vice presidency in 1984, she snipped: ‘I can’t say it but it rhymes with rich’. A native New Yorker, marriage took Bush to the unforgiving plains of West Texas. As George W Bush recalled of his childhood environs:
‘[T]here were few paved streets and frequent dust storms. We lived in a tiny apartment and shared a bathroom with — depending on whom you ask — either one or two prostitutes… Native trees did not exist. The ground was flat, dry, and dusty. Beneath it sat a sea of oil.’
If the harsh terrain contributed to her flintiness, two traumatic episodes were to forge Barbara Bush’s distinctive alloy of steely compassion. Her daughter Robin contracted leukaemia and died aged three. Later she miscarried a pregnancy and took the remains to hospital in a jar, breaking the news of what had happened to a teenage George W as he drove her to the emergency room. Delivering the commencement address at Wellesley College in 1990, she told graduates:
‘At the end of your life you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child or a parent.’
Her avoidance of controversy helped make her a strikingly popular First Lady. Instead, she concentrated her efforts on reading proficiency amongst America’s children, eventually establishing the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. The foundation funds low-income parents and children to learn to read together and its programmes have seen a 70 per cent reduction in children at risk of developmental delays while parents on average jump ahead two grades within one year. In 1990, Bush wrote a whimsical book purporting to detail the observations of Millie, the Bushes’ English Springer Spaniel. Millie’s Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush was a No.1 New York Times bestseller.
If Ron and Nancy were Bogie and Bacall, Barbara and George were Lucille and Desi, more homely but no less sweet. They were monied WASPs who set out to make it on their own and while George Bush Snr could never shake his privileged origins — ‘he was born with a silver foot in his mouth,’ Texas Democrat Ann Richards once quipped — Barbara, no less a blue-blood, was allowed to pass for suburban: America’s Mom and, later, Grandma.
The Bush dynasty has been one of the most successful in American politics, producing two presidents and a governor of Florida. None of them, however, was the capo di tutti capi of the operation. That honour belonged to Barbara Bush who, while outwardly a ladylike baker and writer of children’s books, was privately the iron-willed matriarch without whom her husband — and perhaps even her son — would likely not have made it to the White House. Although not a feminist, and seldom the recipient of plaudits from them, Barbara Bush was one of the strongest women US presidential politics has seen. Her 92 years were a living rejoinder to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: Sometimes well-behaved women do make history.