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After serving as Second Lady from 1981 to 1989, Barbara Pierce Bush served as First Lady of the United States when her husband George H. W. Bush won the Presidency. She is also the mother of the 43rd President, George W. Bush, and of Florida’s 43rd Governor, Jeb Bush.
Rarely has a First Lady been greeted by the American people and the press with the approbation and warmth accorded to Barbara Pierce Bush. Perhaps this is prompted by the image she calls “everybody’s grandmother.” People were comfortable with her white hair, her warm, relaxed manner, and her keen wit. With characteristic directness, she said people liked her because they knew “I’m fair and I like children and I adore my husband.”
Barbara was born in 1925 to Pauline and Marvin Pierce, who later became president of McCall Corporation. In the suburban town of Rye, New York, she had a happy childhood. She went to boarding school at Ashley Hall in South Carolina, and it was at a dance during Christmas vacation when she was only 16 that she met George Bush, a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. They became engaged a year and a half later, just before he went off to war as a Navy torpedo bomber pilot. By the time George returned on leave, Barbara had dropped out of Smith College. Two weeks later, on January 6, 1945, they were married.
After the war, George graduated from Yale, and they set out for Texas to start their lives together. Six children were born to them: George, Robin, Jeb, Neil, Marvin, and Dorothy. Meanwhile, George built a business in the oil industry. With Texas as home base, he then turned to politics and public service, serving as a member of Congress, U. S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Chief of the U. S. Liaison Office in the People’s Republic of China, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and later as Vice President. In those 44 years of marriage, Mrs. Bush managed 29 moves of the family.
When her husband was away, she became the family linchpin, providing everything from discipline to carpools. The death of their daughter Robin from leukemia when she was not quite four left George and Barbara Bush with a lifelong compassion. She says, “Because of Robin, George and I love every living human more.”
Barbara Bush was always an asset to her husband during his campaigns for public office. Her friendly, forthright manner won her high marks from the voters and the press. As wife of the Vice President, she selected the promotion of literacy as her special cause. As First Lady, she called working for a more literate America the “most important issue we have.” Involved with many organizations devoted to this cause, she became Honorary Chairman of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. A strong advocate of volunteerism, Mrs. Bush helped many causes–including the homeless, AIDS, the elderly, and school volunteer programs.
Barbara Pierce Bush passed away on April 17, 2018, at the age of 92.
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Barbara Pierce Bush’s spouse, George H. W. Bush.