As wife to one president and mother of another, Barbara Bush gathered quite a bit of wisdom, some pearls of which are shared in a new book. Image courtesy of George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.
“She called her style a ‘benevolent dictatorship’, ” Barbara Pierce Bush’s son Jeb, the former governor of Florida, said at her funeral in 2018. “But honestly it wasn’t always benevolent.”
The feisty “First Lady of the Greatest Generation” always knew her mind — and never hesitated to speak it. As the wife of one American president and mother of another, Barbara Bush presided over one of America’s most accomplished political dynasties in her trademark white hair and pearls. The “Silver Fox” had a spine of steel as President George H.W. Bush’s closest adviser and foremost defender during his single term in office, and she campaigned just as hard for their son George W.
“She’s the reason the Bush family took the White House twice,” as novelist Brad Meltzer puts it.
In “Pearls of Wisdom” (Twelve Books), Bush’s longtime speechwriter Jean Becker gathered 80 of Bush’s friends, colleagues, children and grandchildren to reflect on the lessons she taught (or drilled into) them during her long and very public life.
“Some people misinterpreted her honesty and directness for callousness,” admits former Secretary of State James Baker. But, says British diplomat Dame Arabella Warburton, “those twinkling eyes would remove the sting from any censure.”
‘Guilt is a gift’
Family and staffers alike called her “The Enforcer,” for good reason: Barbara Bush never forgot an infraction or a slight. Alan Simpson, the former US senator from Arizona, learned this the hard way when he accidentally let slip the family’s plan to throw a surprise party for her 75th birthday in 2000. “For a few years after that she’d grimace and say, ‘You wretched rascal. You ruined the whole thing,’ ” Simpson writes. “I finally sheepishly said, ‘Look, Barbara, the guilt for me is overpowering.’ ”
Her answer: “Al, guilt is the gift that keeps on giving!”
‘When in doubt, listen’
Bush became a champion of literacy in 1978, when she needed a cause to tout on the campaign trail during her husband’s first run for the White House. She knew nothing about the topic — and didn’t mention that detail to staffers, who sent her to speak before a scholarly audience of education experts. She banished her panic by turning the presentation around: “If you were married to the president,” she asked the crowd, “what one thing would you do?” They spent the rest of the session pouring out their ideas.
“When in doubt, keep quiet, listen, and let others talk,” Bush said later. “They’ll be happy, and you might learn something.”
The Bushes led a vagabond life as her husband built a career in the oil business, then pursued politics and diplomacy — leaving Barbara to organize 29 family moves to 17 different cities. She often recounted the time George suddenly announced, with great excitement, a new job in Houston. “My heart just fell,” she remembered, thinking of the trauma of uprooting their four young children once again. But “I took a deep breath and said, I’ve always wanted to live in Houston!”
As she put it, we have two choices in life. “You can choose to like your life and be happy; or not like your life and be grumpy. Choose happy.”
Bush, an avid jigsaw puzzler, devoted hours to the pastime during summers at the family vacation compound in Kennebunkport, Maine — but set strict rules for her guests. “Don’t hover,” she would scold granddaughter Lauren Bush Lauren. “Hovering in puzzling (and in life) means you are not productively making a move and also obstructing others from doing so.”
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates once reached for the final piece of a jigsaw the two were working together. “She fixed me with a BPB glare,” he remembers. “When you are someone’s guest, you do not get to place the last piece of the puzzle. I meekly handed it over to her.”
Bush loathed the false flattery she so often encountered in her role on the national stage. “Trying to butter up the First Lady was never a good idea,” longtime neighbor Betsy Heminway writes. She had a particular pet peeve on the golf course: “Don’t say ‘good shot’ until the ball has landed,” she’d say. “It drove her crazy, as most of the time it was a lousy shot and she knew it,” Heminway explains.
“Don’t get too big for your britches” was a message she constantly reinforced, not just in words but in action. During a beach stroll with Bush and her beloved dogs, family friend Ashley O’Neil spotted “a very large deposit” from someone else’s pooch in their path. “Instead of veering around it, Mrs. Bush … dug deep to find an extra poop bag,” O’Neil writes. “The former First Lady of the United States cleaned up someone else’s dog poop!”
‘Walk life’s beaches’
Even in her late 80s, as she underwent treatment for heart and lung ailments, Bush would take her walker and her “little yelpers” — her two dogs, Mini-Me and Bibi — for twice-daily jaunts along Gooch’s Beach in Maine. “While most of Mrs. Bush’s friends were talking about their medications and ailments, she was tracking her daily steps on her Fitbit,” remembers Hutton Hinson Higgins, her aide at the time.
“Her message is, walk life’s beaches for as long as you can,” son George writes. Barbara Bush died on April 17, 2018, at age 92.