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Barbara Bush, matriarch in a political dynasty, dies at 92

Barbard Bush watched as her husband, President George H.W. Bush, congratulated their son, George W. Bush, when he was inaugurated as Texas governor in 1999.
Barbard Bush watched as her husband, President George H.W. Bush, congratulated their son, George W. Bush, when he was inaugurated as Texas governor in 1999.(Reuters/File)

Barbara Bush, the first woman since Abigail Adams to be the wife of one president and mother of another, died Tuesday at her home in Houston. She was 92.

The cause of death was not yet available, but a family spokesman said Sunday that she had been in “failing health” and wouldn’t seek additional medical treatment.

Mrs. Bush had been in the hospital recently for congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In 2009, she had heart valve replacement surgery and had a long history of treatment for Graves’ disease, a thyroid condition, the Associated Press reported.

Funeral arrangements weren’t immediately released.

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Mrs. Bush’s husband, George H.W. Bush, was president from 1989 to 1993. Her oldest son, George W. Bush, was president from 2001 to 2009.

‘‘Barbara Bush was a fabulous first lady and a woman unlike any other who brought levity, love, and literacy to millions. To us, she was so much more,’’ George W. Bush said in a statement Tuesday. “Mom kept us on our toes and kept us laughing until the end. I'm a lucky man that Barbara Bush was my mother. Our family will miss her dearly.’’

A White House statement from President Trump and Melania Trump hailed the former first lady as ‘‘an advocate of the American family’’ and said she ‘‘will be long remembered for her strong devotion to country and family, both of which she served unfailingly well.’’

Mrs. Bush’s matronly carriage and impressive mane of white hair helped make her an iconic figure, a kind of unofficial national grandmother. She wore her wrinkles with pride, once joking after seeing herself on a pair of magazine covers that “it looks as though I had forgotten to iron my face.”

Such a lack of vanity contributed to Mrs. Bush’s great personal popularity. If the image of her immediate predecessor as presidential consort, Nancy Reagan, had been that of an American Marie Antoinette, Mrs. Bush’s was that of an American Queen Mum, regal yet lovable. “She’s warm and classy and funny,” Richard Nixon once remarked, calling Mrs. Bush her husband’s “greatest asset.”

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Nonetheless, Mrs. Bush was also shrewd and tough and not one to be crossed. She did not believe that “genteel” and “ladylike” were synonyms for “unopinionated.” She let it be known that her political views did not always coincide with those of her husband. She guardedly supported abortion rights — “I hate abortions, but just could not make the choice for someone else,” Mrs. Bush wrote in her memoirs — and favored banning assault weapons.

When her children nicknamed her the Silver Fox, it was only partly a tribute to her hair color. A different Mrs. Bush from the one usually on public display was glimpsed during the 1984 campaign, when she called Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, a “$4 million — I can’t say it, but it rhymes with ‘rich.’ ”

As her unwillingness to come right out and say a vulgarism suggests, Mrs. Bush was in many ways a throwback. Certainly, her fashion tastes were more dowager than downtown. She favored royal blue and patronized such designers as Arnold Scaasi and Bill Blass. Three- and five-strand faux-pearl necklaces became Mrs. Bush’s trademark: her “rampart of pearls,” as Marjorie Williams noted in a 1992 Vanity Fair profile. So pronounced was Mrs. Bush’s reputation for gentility she could afford to make fun of it. She professed delight when in 1995 Outlaw Biker magazine hailed her as “a classy broad,” naming her “First Lady of the Century.”

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“As this magazine usually features topless and tattooed women, and bikers in black leather,” she wrote in her 2003 book, “Reflections,” “I really was honored.”

No one ever associated tattoos or toplessness with Mrs. Bush. She was a distant relative of Franklin Pierce, the 14th president. Hers was “a life of privilege — privilege of every kind,” she wrote in her autobiography. “No man, woman, or child ever had a better life.” One of the happiest locations in that life was the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the Bushes spent their summers. Mrs. Bush is the namesake of the Maine Medical Center’s children’s hospital, in Portland.

Mrs. Bush’s patrician manner got her into trouble in 2005 after a visit to evacuees from Hurricane Katrina housed at Houston’s Astrodome. “So many of the people in the arena,” she said in a radio interview, “were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them.”

Mrs. Bush liked to say that she had dropped out of college to marry “the first man I ever kissed.” She took pride in the fact that, instead of having had a career, she devoted herself to looking after him and their children. Her speech at the 1992 Republican convention was presented as the centerpiece of the convention’s “family values” theme.

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Mrs. Bush’s traditionalism extended beyond domesticity to her pastimes: gardening, needlepoint, tennis, golf, dogs. She was also a passionate reader and worked tirelessly as an advocate for literacy. She made it her special cause. In 1989, she formed the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, which has given millions of dollars to literacy programs throughout the United States. Mrs. Bush even used her love of dogs to advance literacy. Her foundation received all proceeds from “Millie’s Book,” the autobiography of the Bushes’ springer spaniel (a book “dictated to” Mrs. Bush). Those proceeds were considerable: “Millie’s Book” was one of the biggest-selling nonfiction titles of 1990.

Not everyone approved of Mrs. Bush’s more traditional conception of what it meant to be a wife and mother. When she was invited to deliver the commencement address at Wellesley College in 1990, a quarter of the graduating class signed a petition protesting her selection. Mrs. Bush “has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband,” the petition said, adding that Wellesley “teaches us that we will be rewarded on the basis of our own merit, not on that of a spouse.”

The petition became front-page news. “I have to remind myself that THEY invited me,” Mrs. Bush wrote in her diary. “I sometimes feel as though they think I invited myself.” With characteristic aplomb, she turned the situation to her advantage, winning over the commencement audience with her speech. “Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps,” she said in conclusion, “and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse. I wish him well!”

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The contrast between the choices Mrs. Bush made and those of younger women would be underscored two years later. Hillary Clinton, the wife of George H.W. Bush’s Democratic opponent, was a Wellesley graduate who had very much pursued a career.

Barbara Pierce was born on June 8, 1925, in New York City. Her father, Marvin Pierce, was a publishing executive, who later became president of the McCall Corporation. Her mother was Pauline (Robinson) Pierce. Mrs. Bush had what she described in her memoirs as “a very carefree childhood” in the affluent suburb of Rye, N.Y. She attended public and private schools in Rye and a boarding school in South Carolina. At 16, Mrs. Bush met George H.W. Bush at a country club dance. She attended Smith College, where she was captain of the freshman soccer team. Mrs. Bush dropped out of Smith at the beginning of her sophomore year, something she later professed to regret. “I just wasn’t interested” in academics, she wrote in her autobiography. “I was just interested in George.”

Mrs. Bush married her husband, then a Navy lieutenant, in January 1945. Upon his discharge, he enrolled at Yale University, and they moved to New Haven. He invited 10 Yale classmates home for their first Thanksgiving dinner together. It was a preview of the many challenges that life with so energetic a man would bring. There would be 28 moves in 17 cities prior to the Bushes moving into the White House.

“Dad was the chief executive officer,” the Bushes’ second son, Jeb, said in a 1988 interview with People magazine, “but Mother was the chief operating officer. We all reported to her.”

“I don’t fool around with his office,” Mrs. Bush liked to say, “and he doesn’t fool around with my household.”

In addition to George W. and Jeb, Mrs. Bush had two other sons, Neil and Marvin, and two daughters, Robin and Dorothy; 17 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. Robin died of leukemia in 1953.

After Yale, Mrs. Bush’s husband took up the oil business in Texas.

Mrs. Bush was supportive of her husband’s work in politics and government: as a congressman, then as US ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, head of the US liaison office in Beijing, director of the CIA, presidential candidate, and as Ronald Reagan’s vice president. Yet she sometimes professed private misgivings, as when he was considering his second presidential run. “George is obviously the most qualified person for the job,” she wrote in a 1986 diary entry. “Do I want him to run? Absolutely not!”

Mrs. Bush had similar misgivings in 2000 on behalf of the next Bush generation, as she suffered what she described in “Reflections” as “the agony of seeing a son run for president.” Yet she proved an able campaigner as either wife or mother and did not shrink from the spotlight. “I did my own thing and did it pretty well,” Mrs. Bush said in a 1994 Globe interview.

Another son’s candidacy ended less well, though not for lack of effort on Mrs. Bush’s part. In the 2016 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, she campaigned for Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida. Noting a larger-than-usual crowd when his mother made an appearance with him in Derry, N.H., Bush deadpanned, “Wow, Mom, my crowd sizes normally aren’t this large. I wonder why.”


Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary. Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.