Don’t be fooled by those humble descriptions of Barbara Bush as wife, mother, and grandmother.
She also ran a major corporation. It was called Bush Inc.
Barbara Bush, who died Tuesday at age 92, was devoted to family, and that devotion made her an invaluable political asset. Her white hair and wrinkles made her “normal” and relatable. Her candor was also a plus, especially since it stood out during the more restrained political times that framed the presidencies of her husband, George H.W. Bush, and her son, George W. Bush.
But like all successful CEOs, Barbara Bush was also devoted to building a brand and doing what it took to market it. Promoting the Bush brand meant pushing important social causes, like literacy. It also meant playing along, when necessary, with some rough political hardball.
In 1984, when then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was Ronald Reagan’s running mate against Democrat Walter Mondale, Barbara Bush famously did what a male candidate couldn’t. She took a shot at Mondale’s running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, describing her as something that “rhymes with rich.” In the uproar that followed, Bush sort of apologized, saying she didn’t mean to insult Ferraro by calling her “a witch.”
Civil rights were said to be a Barbara Bush passion. The New York Times writes that during a trip from Texas to Kennebunkport, Maine, she refused to stay at a hotel that would not accommodate two black family employees who were traveling with her. Also, when she became first lady, she insisted that her press secretary be black, a first for that position. None of that personal commitment led her to denounce, at least publicly, the nasty race-baiting campaign that George H.W. Bush ran against Democrat Michael S. Dukakis in 1988. As directed by Lee Atwater, an operative famous for the politics of attack, Dukakis was the target of a campaign advertisement about Willie Horton, a black convicted murderer who escaped from a Massachusetts prison during a weekend furlough and raped a white woman and stabbed her husband. That ad did to Dukakis what Atwater promised — to “make Willie Horton his running mate.” When Atwater died in 1991 of a brain tumor, then-President Bush said, “Barbara and I are heartsick about it.” He said he found Atwater’s near-death apology to Dukakis “interesting.”
In 2000, Bush history repeated itself. When George W. Bush was running for the Republican presidential nomination, robo-calls to South Carolina voters asked how they would feel about John McCain if they knew he had fathered an illegitimate child with a black woman. Those calls, inspired by the appearance of McCain’s adopted daughter from Bangladesh on the campaign trail, helped Barbara Bush’s son win.
Such political decisions are owned by the candidate, not by his wife or mother. But Barbara Bush remained publicly loyal to whatever it took to win. That makes her no different from any other spouse or parent who puts love ahead of principle. That’s reality.
Like other political wives, she also remained loyal to her husband, despite rumors of infidelity, which he denied.
She was a strong woman with strong opinions, who kept some of them to herself, if they could be used by political opponents. For example, after her husband left office, she said she supported legal abortion.
The commencement speech she gave in 1990 at Wellesley College highlighted the conflict that still reigns to some degree over Barbara Bush’s role in life and politics. Students protested her selection as speaker, since she had dropped out of Smith College to marry Bush. A signed petition complained that to honor her “is to honor a woman who has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband.” But the speech she gave wowed the crowd, especially the ending: “Somewhere out there 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 woman who ran Bush Inc. probably knew better than anyone what it would take to make that happen.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that George H.W. Bush was the 1984 Republican nominee for president.