Born to affluence in Manhattan, Barbara Pierce Bush may not have been a Texan by birth, but she became one by choice and by love. She was just sixteen when she met a boy called Poppy Bush at a Christmas dance. They talked and then parted, writing letters to one another in the months that followed. Then he invited her to his senior prom at Phillips Academy Andover. As it concluded, he leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. That sweet moment led to 73 years of marriage to George Herbert Walker Bush, the future president of the United States. When he decided in 1948 to try to make a fortune of his own in the West Texas oil fields of the Permian Basin, Barbara followed him on a twelve-hour airplane flight to the 105-degree heat of Odessa. “Nothing comes easy to West Texas. Every tree must be cultivated, and every flower is a joy,” she recalled in her autobiography. But Barbara Bush made that journey without hesitation. As she later told her eldest son, “I was young and in love. I would have gone anywhere your father wanted.”
This transplanted Texan died Tuesday at the age of 92, according to a statement. She died on her own terms, her family said, recently announcing that she had decided against seeking further medical treatment and, instead, would focus on comfort care.
The office of former president George H.W. Bush released a statement Tuesday announcing the former first lady’s passing:
A former First Lady of the United States of America and relentless proponent of family literacy, Barbara Pierce Bush passed away Tuesday..at the age of 92. She is survived by her husband of 73 years, President George H.W. Bush; five children and their spouses; 17 grandchildren; seven great grandchildren; and her brother, Scott Pierce. She was preceded in death by her second child, Pauline Robinson “Robin” Bush, and her siblings Martha Rafferty and James R. Pierce.
The official funeral schedule will be announced as soon as is practical.
Barbara Bush’s eldest son, former President George W. Bush, issued a statement later Tuesday:
My dear mother has passed on at age 92. Laura, Barbara, Jenna, and I are sad, but our souls are settled because we know hers was.
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. 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, and we thank you all for your prayers and good wishes.
Texas governor Greg Abbott said the former first lady had a profound impact on the country.
Barbara Bush dedicated her life to helping others. As only the second woman in history to be both the wife and mother of U.S. presidents, Barbara had a unique and profound impact on our country.
Spearheading the fight against illiteracy, she created the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, working to improve the lives of those less fortunate through education. Her selfless devotion to service defines the inspiring legacy Barbara has left behind. Her impact on Texas and our nation will forever be treasured.
Cecilia and I extend our deepest condolences to President George H.W. Bush and the entire Bush family during this difficult time. We ask that all Texans join us in keeping them in their thoughts and prayers as they mourn the passing of a devoted wife, mother, and public servant.
There has often been a tendency to define Barbara Bush as a Republican political wife and stay-at-home mom, and that certainly is what she was in the early part of her husband’s career. But as time went along, they bonded into a potent political team, even though he often did not follow her advice, such as when he took the job as director of the Central Intelligence Agency against her wishes. In time, this outspoken, sometimes blunt woman emerged as the matriarch of a political dynasty that included two presidents, two governors, and a Texas land commissioner. Her father-in-law also served in the U.S. Senate.
She also was not as conservative as her husband, causing him political grief in the seventies by publicly stating her support for the Equal Rights Amendment and a pro-choice position on abortion. While she stifled her sharp tongue during Bush’s runs for president, she just couldn’t seem to help herself in 1984 when she gave her opinion of Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro—“It rhymes with witch”—though she later apologized.
With the wealth of her childhood and her husband’s eventual success in the oil business, Barbara carried herself with a regal air, wearing cobalt blue dresses and her trademark pearls. That facade hid from the public a life sometimes filled with pain. When her daughter, Robin, died in 1953 of leukemia at the age of three, she was so depressed that her eldest son, future president George W. Bush, felt like it was his job to raise his mother’s spirits. She also fell into a depression when George H.W. was CIA director because he could not discuss the secrets of his day. “Night after night George held me weeping in his arms while I tried to explain my feelings,” she wrote. “My ‘code’ told me that you should not think about self but others. And yet, there I was, wallowing in self-pity.” In retrospect, she blamed her depression on menopause.
Another family problem led Barbara Bush into her crusade as first lady. After her son Neil was diagnosed with dyslexia, she began working with literacy agencies. She became an advocate for literacy, traveling the country to promote programs to teach adults how to read.
Barbara Bush’s marriage to a president probably would have been enough to define her legacy, but she was also the mother of another president, George W. Bush, who also served as governor of Texas; and a Florida governor, Jeb. Her grandson, George P. Bush, is the land commissioner of Texas. Other surviving children include Neil, Marvin, and Dorothy Bush Koch.
Although she campaigned for George W. in his run for president, she tried to dissuade Jeb from running. She repeatedly spoke out against President Trump in his campaign for the Republican nomination because of “what he says about women.”
By her own measure, a life of joy is also one of travails. “We cry when we are glad and when we are sad. Love brings a tear. Friends bring a tear. A smile, sweetness, even a kind word brings a tear. In a life of privilege there are lots of tears.”