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Opinion | Richard North Patterson

The irreplaceable Barbara Bush

George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush in 2006.MATTHEW CAVANAUGH/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

When Barbara Bush died, my friend and colleague Scot Lehigh asked if I planned to write about her. No, I responded — so consistent was her character that other friends of Barbara were commemorating the exact same woman I knew. Then I realized that constancy helped make her an American original.

True, basic elements of her character epitomized the admirable but familiar traits of the WASP patrician: a disdain for ostentation and self-dramatization; a sense of obligation and service to others; a commitment to standards of behavior; an aversion to disingenuousness and duplicity. What set her apart was how completely she epitomized, yet transcended, her role.


She was utterly authentic. I never heard her say anything which wasn’t, by her lights, true. She was tart, observant, and devastatingly funny. She could step outside herself and chuckle at who she saw. She viewed the snares and ironies of fame with considerable amusement.

She was informal and without pretense. Whether in Houston or Walker’s Point, when you knocked on the door, she answered. Once she became a former first lady, she eschewed what she considered the pomp — and public expense — of Secret Service protection. Yet she was unfailingly solicitous toward the agents assigned to her, and to everyone who helped her and President Bush keep their busy life on track. In public or private, a Secret Service agent told me, George and Barbara Bush were ever the same people.

Barbara had a merciless X-ray for the phony and meretricious. Yet her dominant characteristics were warmth and loyalty — not just to family, but to friends. Once she trusted you, she trusted you completely, including to protect her confidences as she would yours. That you might be quite different from her — in background, experience, or political beliefs — mattered not at all. She knew full well that I was situated to her political left, and seldom resisted pricking me about the lemmings I surely consorted with on “liberal Martha’s Vineyard.” But she e-mailed about my opinion pieces — many hostile to the GOP —with good humor, dispassion, and even, in my luckier moments, praise.


“Well,” she wrote me with WASPy understatement, “it seems you don’t like Donald Trump too much.” Though she had her own admiration for Trump under tight control, more recently she expressed concern that disliking him so comprehensively might sour me on life. There was ever in Barbara Bush a bit of the maternal — even for a man on Social Security.

Family mattered — hers and yours. Over the past several years, we maintained a lively e-mail correspondence. Hers invariably included news of the family, and an interest in mine. That the sheer numbers of Bush grandchildren and great-grandchildren came to resemble a familial population explosion filled her with pleasure — right down to the latest addition.

A few years ago on Walker’s Point, she showed us the plastic frames holding the pictures of various offspring. Wryly, she pointed out that the frames enabled her to remove one photograph and insert another — depending on which group of Bushes was visiting next. There was no point, after all, in hurting anyone’s feelings.

Least of all her husband’s. Inescapably, a long-term marriage is buffeted by change — within and without — frustrating any hope of perfection. But no one could miss the mutual devotion between George and Barbara Bush, their pleasure in what they had created, and the joy they took in each other’s company — including an affectionate teasing grounded in their deep knowledge and appreciation of each other. To me, it seemed, they had achieved pretty much every good thing the challenge of marriage could offer.


Given her belief in the institution, Barbara viewed my own marital peregrinations with a certain misgiving. A few years ago, having married Nancy, I took her for a visit to Kennebunkport. Aware that Barbara could be formidable, Nancy was a tad apprehensive. But Barbara greeted her with great warmth, taking her for a spin around Walker’s Point so they could talk — including about Nancy’s work as an educator in the developing world, a subject in which Barbara displayed a deep interest.

At the end of our visit, Barbara and I were alone for a moment. Giving me a brisk nod, she said firmly, “I can certainly see why you married her.” No one could ask for better.

Now she’s gone. Given her aversion to praise, I will leave it here — in missing her, I mourn the loss of grace in our public life. Barbara Bush was, perhaps, irreplaceable.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.