Remembering Barbara Bush, Family Protector

The late first lady zealously guarded her husband and sons—politically and personally—and was willing to deliver tough messages to do it.

President George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush share a toast at a gala in New York in 1989.
AP Photo/Ron Frehm
Tom DeFrank
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Tom DeFrank
April 18, 2018, 12:42 p.m.

In August of 1986, during a sensitive political mission to the Middle East, Vice President George H.W. Bush laid on an impromptu sightseeing trip to the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt.

At one point during a guided tour by Egyptologists in 100-degree heat and searing humidity, Barbara Bush asked why her husband was walking around a giant statue of a sacred scarab beetle, and was told the ritual was thought to bring good luck for politicians.

“George, don’t be such an ass,” she said under her breath, rolling her eyes from a safe distance.

“I unstuff his shirts,” she explained with a wink and wry smile.

That she did, always good-naturedly. After being named an honorary Knight of the Garter by Queen Elizabeth II in 1993, Bush needled his wife after returning home: “How does it feel to be married to a real knight?”

“Sir George, make the coffee,” she needled back.

Her primary tasks during 73 years of married life, however, were raising six kids and protecting her husband’s political standing with a no-prisoners intensity verging on the Nancy Reagan-esque.

“She was an inveterate fighter in protecting her family and especially her husband,” a close family friend told National Journal a few hours before the former first lady died. “Anyone who threatened his best interests found her standing in the way, and that was never good news. She was tough and fearless when she had to be.”

Unlike Hillary Clinton, she seldom inserted herself into major political deliberations in the White House years. She was, instead, the family capo, always on the prowl for threats to the Bush clan, particularly its patriarch.

Usually deploying her son and future president George W. Bush as the enforcer, she wasn’t shy about making her displeasure felt. When campaign strategist Lee Atwater posed in boxing gear for a magazine profile, she let it be known she thought the photo in poor taste and the story more interested in selling Atwater than his boss.

She helped grease the skids for the exit of embattled White House Chief of Staff John Sununu over his imperious style and ethical lapses. (On the other hand, when Sununu asked her to call a magazine reporter who was about to write that he was on the outs with the first lady, she dutifully called the newsman to say it wasn’t so—even though it was.)

It was an open secret that Barbara believed Vice President Dan Quayle a liability to her husband’s reelection in 1992 and wished he’d take himself off the ticket. “Did you hear what our vice president said today?” she once asked her staff after another Quayle gaffe.

In fact, anti-Quayle plotters hatched a scheme to convince her to deliver that message to Quayle herself. (It never happened—her husband angrily squelched the plan.)

“No matter how high you were in the Bush orbit,” a longtime 41 assistant said, “you were never immune to Barbara’s sharp tongue if she thought you were doing her husband wrong.”

That even included, from time to time, an untouchable like James Baker, Bush’s closest political confidant and former tennis doubles partner.

Barbara always felt that despite the former secretary of State’s abiding loyalty to his Houston pal, he sometimes pursued his own agenda. She especially hated that when Baker reluctantly returned to the White House in 1992 to oversee the ill-fated election campaign, he sat on his hands—never appearing on the Sunday talk shows although handlers thought him the best advocate available to a faltering reelection effort. She took it personally, confiding in friends her suspicion that Baker was trying to distance himself from a prospective Bush loss.

She was so bitter that on the last weekend of the campaign in Wisconsin, she spied him out the window of her whistle-stop train cabin and exclaimed: “There’s Jimmy Baker, the invisible man.”

She had zero regard for Donald J. Trump, believing he was crude, rude, and not up to the presidency. She tried her best to mask that disdain, observing carefully now and then that the 45th president was “just a little weird.” Privately, however, she never forgave Trump for suggesting in 2008 that it would be “a wonderful thing” if her son were impeached by the Democrats over the Iraq war. She also fumed over candidate Trump’s belittling her second son, Jeb, as “low energy” during the 2016 Republican debates.

Her distaste towards Trump didn’t spill over to his wife Melania, who will attend her funeral and whom she once described as “a woman of ravishing beauty.” But she observed of her fellow first lady: “Why are we allowed to talk [critically] about Michelle Obama’s arms but we can’t talk about Donald Trump’s wife’s nude photographs? Why is that?” She was offended by what she considered a presidential double standard on the part of Trump’s partisans.

Very little seemed to escape her notice. At the 1992 GOP convention in Houston, Bush’s press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, mindful that the first lady hated smoking, found a secluded hallway to light up a cigar. Suddenly George W. Bush appeared, cadging another cigar from Fitzwater. Minutes later, to their horror, they saw Barbara Bush heading their way.

“Hello, boys, how are you?” she asked. She kept walking—then turned back and deadpanned, “By the way, your pants are on fire.” The busted smokers had been so fearful of her ire that they’d stuffed their smokes into their trouser pockets.

Such was the reach of Barbara Pierce Bush, wife and mother of two presidents and distant relative of a third (Franklin Pierce). To the end, she was always keeping score, and usually prevailing—with pearls, style, and class.

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