Bush, Barbara Pierce (1925–2018)

By: Andrew Baker

Type: Biography

Published: October 9, 2019

Updated: April 1, 2021

Barbara Pierce Bush, First Lady of the United States (1989–93), mother of Texas governor and United States president George W. Bush, and matriarch of the Bush political family, was born the third of four children in New York City on June 8, 1925. Her father, Marvin Pierce was an executive at the McCall Corporation, a New York publishing company. Her mother, Pauline (Robinson) Pierce was conservation chair of the Garden Club of America. Her parents provided a privileged upbringing and instilled in her a love of reading in their coastal suburb of Rye, New York. Barbara Pierce attended Milton Public School and then Rye Country Day School in Rye.

Beginning in 1940 she attended Ashley Hall boarding school in Charleston, South Carolina, where she was active in the drama club and student council. While home on break in 1941, she met her future husband George Herbert Walker Bush at a Christmas dance at the Round Hill Country Club in Greenwich, Connecticut. She was sixteen years old. He was a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. They were smitten with each other. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, however, put any plans for marriage on hold. George Bush had been accepted at Yale University but deferred to join the fighting in World War II. He completed pilot training in the United States Navy and flew fifty-eight combat missions in the Pacific. During this time Barbara Pierce attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, from 1943 to 1944. The couple became engaged in December 1943, and she dropped out of school during her sophomore year to marry George Bush on January 6, 1945. Like many women of her generation, Barbara Bush spent the decade after the war engaged in the domestic responsibilities of homemaking and raising young children.

During the first eight months of their marriage, the couple moved between various naval bases in Michigan, Maine, and Virginia, before George was released from military service in September, 1945. They then moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where he completed a degree at Yale. Graduation brought another round of moves, this time to Odessa and Midland, Texas, as George made a start in the oil business. In 1946 they welcomed their first child, George W. Bush, future governor of Texas and United States president. Three years later, on September 23, 1949, Pauline Robinson Pierce, Barbara Bush's mother, died in a car accident. Bush was pregnant at the time with their second child, Pauline Robinson "Robin" Bush (1949–1953). (Barbara’s father Marvin Pierce later married Willa Martin, an Associated Press reporter, in June 1952.) After Robin Bush was diagnosed with leukemia in 1953, Barbara and George pursued aggressive treatment but ultimately watched their second child succumb to the disease. These two losses—of her mother and then daughter—affected Barbara Bush enormously; while she was still only in her late twenties, her hair turned white.

George and Barbara Bush had four more children: John Ellis "Jeb" Bush (born in 1953), a future governor of Florida and presidential candidate; Neil Mallon Bush (born in 1955); Marvin Pierce Bush (born in 1956); and Dorothy "Doro" Bush Koch (born in 1959). Barbara Bush remembered the decade that followed Robin’s death as a period of “long days and short years,” in which she shouldered the responsibilities of mother, disciplinarian, homemaker, and community member. While the family often joked about her mediocre cooking, her children remembered her as a tough but fair mother whose home was popular with neighborhood children. What little time Barbara found outside of these roles she poured into her community. She taught Sunday school; volunteered at the YMCA, a local theater company, and with the United Way; and helped raise funds for cancer research and the United Negro College Fund. Her husband established himself as a very successful businessman.

In 1959 the Bush family moved to Houston. Hoping to launch a career in politics, George Bush was elected to the position of Harris County Republican Party chairman in 1962. During this period Barbara Bush first developed her skills as a campaigner and found that she excelled at small talk and came to enjoy public speaking. Politics gave her a voice outside the home. Her husband lost a bid to represent Texas in the United States Senate in 1964 before securing a seat in the U. S. House of Representatives in 1966. He was reelected in 1968 but lost a run for the U. S. Senate again in 1970. With Richard Nixon in the White House, George Bush accepted a series of appointed positions. He served as the United States ambassador to the United Nations (1971–73). In spite of Barbara's warnings about the growing Watergate scandal, he took on the position of Republican National Committee chairman (1973–74). After Nixon's resignation, President Gerald Ford appointed Bush head of the U. S. Liaison Office in Beijing, China, in 1974. Barbara Bush remembered this time fondly, as the couple bicycled around the city and immersed themselves in a new culture. George Bush next served as head of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1976 to 1977. The position required a great deal of secrecy and therefore placed some strain on their marriage. By the end of the 1970s, George Bush had achieved prominent insider status in the national Republican party. Barbara Bush had grown into the role of politician's wife and, with her children raised, now devoted herself fully to this position.

George Bush made his first run for the presidency in the 1980 Republican party primary with Barbara Bush as a tireless campaigner. Changing political winds pushed Ronald Reagan ahead of the more moderate George Bush in the Republican presidential primary. In an effort to unify the party, Reagan selected George Bush to serve as his vice president. Barbara Bush was an exceptionally-active second lady. Though “not personally close” to First Lady Nancy Reagan, she made every effort to use the opportunities of the office without taking attention away from the First Lady. In her eight years Bush both hosted and attended countless events.

During George H. W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, Barbara cast herself as a model of domesticity. Her white hair, matronly figure, three-strand pearl necklace, and ten grandchildren all reassured the American people that the Bush family was sincere and down-to-earth. Barbara Bush presented herself to voters as someone who cared more about gardening, family, and volunteering at church in the community than she did about fashion and glamour. The voting public responded well. Gallup polls consistently placed her at the top of their lists of the most admired women during this period. This popularity was a major political asset for her husband, and Bush campaigned relentlessly to make the most of it, appearing in as many as five to six events per day. Partly through these efforts, Barbara Bush, at the age of sixty-three, became First Lady in January 1989.

As First Lady, Barbara Bush worked diligently for the cause that defined her public career: literacy. She explained, "I once spent the summer thinking of all the things that bothered me—teen pregnancy, drugs, everything—and I realized everything would be better if more people could read and write." She founded the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and was also a sponsor for the Business Council for Effective Literacy and Laubach Literacy International. She promoted her cause on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1989, the same year that she received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Smith College. She even put the family's English Springer Spaniels to work and wrote C. Fred's Story: A Dog’s Life (1984) and Millie's Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush (1990) to raise funds. Bush supported the National Literacy Act which became law in 1991. Late that same year, she participated in an ABC National Radio series, Mrs. Bush's Storytime, in which she read to children. Her literacy campaign represented both the culmination of decades of service and a shrewd way to keep herself in the public eye without generating controversy.

Barbara Bush's work for the Republican party was equally tireless. During the 1990 midterm elections she made forty-two appearances on behalf of thirty-nine Republican candidates across the nation. As First Lady, Bush expanded the breadth of the causes she promoted. In addition to the cause of literacy, she championed medical research and public awareness—especially regarding victims of AIDS. She also raised approximately $25 million for the White House Endowment Trust. Occasionally her frankness caused controversy. As a citizen she had supported the Equal Rights Amendment and referred to abortion as "a private matter." In the political climate of the early 1990s, however, she kept these opinions private. Her address at the Republican National Convention in 1992 called for parents and communities "to teach their children integrity, strength, responsibility, courage, sharing, love of God, and pride in being an American." She continued, "However you define family, that's what we mean by family values." Barbara Bush had been raised in a period when the roles of mother and homemaker were assumed to overshadow all others in the life of a respectable woman. While she sometimes chafed against the limits these roles imposed, she accepted as her life's work—the cultivating of the political fortunes of her husband and sons. As the matriarch of the Bush dynasty, her ambitions were inseparable from her family. As Barbara Bush later wrote in one of her memoirs, "I know that I am considered defensive about my husband and children. It's a very fair criticism."

These roles sometimes put her in conflict with a new generation of women who aspired to professional careers outside the home. When Wellesley College invited her to be its commencement speaker in 1990, a group of students circulated a petition protesting the decision. They questioned how a woman who had dropped out of college to get married and who had seemingly achieved status and prominence through her husband's career could inspire a new generation of women to succeed on their own terms? During the speech Bush presented herself with characteristic wit and grace and spoke of the difficulties of balancing career and family before closing with the memorable line: "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. And I wish him well."

After George H. W. Bush lost his re-election campaign to Bill Clinton in 1992, Barbara Bush divided her time between Houston and the family summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine. In addition to frequent global travel and continuing volunteer work, she wrote two memoirs: Barbara Bush: A Memoir (1994) and Reflections: Life After the White House (2003). She was honored with the Jefferson Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged in 1995 and the Miss America Woman of Achievement Award in 1997. She continued to pour herself into the political careers of her children, with George W. Bush and Jeb Bush both running for governor in 1994 (George won, Jeb lost) and 1998 (both won). In 2000 and 2004 she returned to campaigning, this time for her son, presidential candidate George W. Bush. His election allowed her to join Abigail Adams as the second woman to be both wife and mother of a president. In 2016 her son Jeb Bush was part of a crowded field of presidential candidates vying for the Republican nomination, but he dropped out after weak primary results. Barbara Bush took many of the attacks on her son personally, and the experience weakened her support of the Republican party.

Barbara Pierce Bush, at the age of ninety-two, died of congestive heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at her home in Houston on April 17, 2018. A public viewing of her casket took place in Houston at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, where George and Barbara Bush were longtime members, and a memorial service was held there on April 21, 2018. She was buried in the family cemetery on the grounds of the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas.

When a reporter asked her how she wanted to be remembered as First Lady, Barbara Bush replied, "She cared; she worked hard for lots of causes." Former secretary of state and close family friend James Baker III said that she was “matriarch of a family that remains as dedicated to public service as it was to politics." Barbara Bush was a refined, East Coast Republican—a political insider who masterfully cultivated her image as a self-deprecating homemaker and grandmother. Her children remembered her as "the silver fox," a shrewd political strategist and campaigner.

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Barbara Bush, Barbara Bush: A Memoir (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1994). Barbara Bush, Reflections: Life After the White House (New York: Lisa Drew, 2003). Barbara Pierce Bush, George Bush Presidential Library Foundation (https://www.barbarapbush.com/), accessed October 8, 2019. Lewis L. Gould, ed., American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy (New York: Routledge, 2001). Susan Page, The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty (New York: Twelve, 2019). 

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Andrew Baker, “Bush, Barbara Pierce,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 07, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/bush-barbara-pierce.

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October 9, 2019
April 1, 2021

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