fb-pixelWhen Barbara Bush wowed Wellesley College - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
Get Smart

When Barbara Bush wowed Wellesley College

Barbara Bush and Raisa Gorbachev, wife of former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, at the graduation ceremony.AFP

Barbara Bush was not the Wellesley class of 1990’s first choice for commencement speaker. That was author Alice Walker, who declined.

After the first lady was invited, 150 students circulated a petition saying Bush was a poor choice for the all-women’s college because she had “gained recognition through the achievements of her husband, which contravenes what we’ve been taught over the last four years.’’ Furthermore, she had dropped out of Smith College after two years to marry the future president, George H.W. Bush.

The controversy didn’t just roil the verdant campus. It made national news, stoking debate about the essence of feminism.


So the tension was thick when Bush stepped to the podium on June 1, 1990. The networks aired the speech live, and Bush was accompanied by Russia’s first lady, Raisa Gorbachev, who was visiting Washington with her husband, Mikhail, for a summit.

How did Bush’s speech go over? She knocked it out of the park.

In her 11-minute address, she “poked more gentle fun at herself than at her critics,’’ the Globe’s John Robinson reported. She urged graduates to choose their own path — and not to let others define it for them, evoking the spirit of tolerance to counter those who protested that she was a poor choice for a speaker.

Here are some highlights:

“I hope many of you will consider making three very special choices. The first is to believe in something larger than yourself, to get involved in some of the big ideas of our time,” she said.

“I chose literacy because I honestly believed that if more people could read, write, and comprehend, we would be that much closer to solving so many of the problems that plague our nation and our society,” Bush said.

“And early on, I made another choice, which I hope you will make as well. Whether you are talking about education, career, or service, you are talking about life and life really must have joy. It’s supposed to be fun. One of the reasons I made the most important decision of my life, to marry George Bush, is because he made me laugh.


“It’s true, sometimes we laugh through our tears, but that shared laughter has been one of our strongest bonds. Find the joy in life because as Ferris Bueller said on his day off — ‘Life moves pretty fast and if you don’t stop and look around once in a while you are going to miss it,’ ” she said.

“The third choice that must not be missed is to cherish your human connections, your relationships with family and friends. . . . At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend, or a parent. . . .

“Whatever the era, whatever the times, one thing will never change: Fathers and mothers, if you have children, they must come first. You must read to your children and you must hug your children and you must love your children. Your success as a family, our success as a society, depends not on what happens in the White House but on what happens inside your house.

Bush then delivered a zinger to close her speech.


“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.’’

The crowd of 5,000 gave her a standing ovation.

Rosemarie McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from The Washington Post and Associated Press was also included.