The death of Barbara Bush touched off an outpouring of condolences and fond memories across New England Tuesday, as political leaders recalled the former first lady as a figure of uncommon grace and resolve.
Bush was “an ever-present conscience” during her time in the White House, said Andrew Card, a Holbrook native who served as deputy chief of staff and transportation secretary in the administration of Bush’s husband, George H.W. Bush.
“She was notorious for being unvarnished in her critiques,” Card said. “The truth was very important to her.”
Of all the words he could think of to describe Bush, “the most significant one was loving,” Card said. “She and her husband lived one of the greatest love stories in the history of the world,” he said.
Bush was 92. Her oldest son, George W. Bush, was president from 2001 to 2009.
Card said he first met Bush at a Boston hotel in the late 1970s, when her husband was first thinking about running for the White House. She answered the hotel door in her pajamas, and Card was struck with how “comfortable and nice and understanding” she was.
“She was warm,” he said in a phone interview.
New Hampshire native David Carney, who worked as director of the office of political affairs during the first Bush administration, described Barbara Bush as “gentle but firm.”
In recent years, as her husband’s health declined, Barbara Bush acted as his “keeper and helper and aide and companion,” who knew instinctively what he wanted, Carney said.
When Carney worked in the White House, he was more worried about Barbara Bush’s opinion of his work than her husband’s, he recalled.
“I didn’t want her to be disappointed,” said Carney, who now runs a political communications firm in Hancock, N.H.
Carney recalled that his mother hosted a small tea gathering for Barbara Bush in Francestown, N.H., in 1979. After the event, Bush sent his mother a thank-you note, which she kept pinned to a bulletin board for years. It was a perfect example of the “old-school, polite manners” she was famous for, Carney said. It was part of a personality that was well-suited for retail politics.
“No one who met her ever forgot the encounter,” he said. “She was an iconic character.”
Bush’s son Jeb, a former Florida governor who has also run for president, wrote on Facebook that his family was grateful for “the outpouring of love and support for my Mom in recent days.”
“I’m exceptionally privileged to be the son of George Bush and the exceptionally gracious, gregarious, fun, funny, loving, tough, smart, graceful woman who was the force of nature known as Barbara Bush,” he wrote.
In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker thanked Bush for her service.
“I had the chance to meet former First Lady Barbara Bush on several occasions & also watched her interact with rooms full of people,” Baker wrote on Twitter. “Tons of grace & charm.”
Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey described Bush as a “woman of unique American grace and integrity.”
“She was devoted to the nation, and we loved her in return,” he wrote on Twitter.
Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, lauded Bush as “the great First Lady of our times.”
“Barbara raised a family of service & character, stood by her beloved husband in the best & worst times, and spoke her convictions with courage & passion,” he wrote on Twitter.
Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton said Bush had “grit and grace, brains and beauty.”
“She was fierce and feisty in support of her family and friends, her country and her causes,” they wrote in a statement. “She showed us what an honest, vibrant, full life looks like.”
Barack and Michelle Obama recalled Bush as “the rock of a family dedicated to public service.”
“We’ll always be grateful to Mrs. Bush for the generosity she showed to us throughout our time in the White House, but we’re even more grateful for the way she lived her life — as a testament to the fact that public service is an important and noble calling; as an example of the humility and decency that reflects the very best of the American spirit,” the Obamas said.
In Maine, where the Bush family has vacationed for generations in Kennebunkport, Bush was remembered fondly.
“Every summer for more than 20 years, I have visited President and Mrs. Bush at their Kennebunkport home,” Maine Senator Susan Collins said in a statement. “It was always one of the highlights of the year. I shall miss those delightful visits with her.”
Maine Governor Paul LePage extended his family’s condolences to the Bush family, saying the former first lady will be missed.
“Mainers hold a special place in our hearts for President and Mrs. Bush, and we will treasure our memories of her time spent in our state,” he posted on Twitter.
Maine’s Democratic Party chairman, Phil Bartlett, called Bush “a paragon of dignity.”
“Mrs. Bush represented the very best of the American spirit and continually reminded us through her inspiring example that politics is secondary to our shared humanity,” he said in a statement. “The people of Maine are fortunate to have had her as our neighbor and as our friend.”
In Kennebunk, Maine, police thanked Bush in a Twitter post for “caring about our community” and for “patrolling Kennebunk Beach for so many years!” Accompanying the message was a picture of a sunset, taken Tuesday evening.