America’s First Ladies, #41: Barbara Pierce Bush

America's First Ladies, #41: Barbara Pierce Bush

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Barbara Pierce would one day become our forty-first, First Lady. She was born on June 8, 1925, in Flushing, New York. Her parents were Marvin Pierce and Pauline Robinson. Her father was president of the McCall Corporation, which published popular magazines such as Redbook and McCall’s. Barbara had two older siblings, Martha and James, and a younger sibling named Scott. On her father’s side, she was a fourth cousin four times removed of 14th US President Franklin Pierce.

Barbara was raised in Rye, New York, and attended the Milton Public School there. She later went to boarding school at Ashley Hall in Charleston, South Carolina. Barbara was athletic and enjoyed outdoor activities such as swimming, tennis, and riding a bike. She also loved to read, an interest she had from an early age, and fondly recalled her family gathering and reading together in the evenings when she was young.

Barbara met her future husband, George Herbert Walker Bush when she was sixteen years old and attending a dance at the Round Hill Country Club in Greenwich, Connecticut. George was a student at Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts at the time. They dated for a year and a half and then became engaged just before George went off to fight in WWII as a Navy torpedo bomber pilot.

George named three of his planes after Barbara during the war. When he returned to the USA on leave, they got married at the First Presbyterian Church in Rye, New York. The wedding was on January 6, 1945. George stayed in the USA but remained in the Navy, and he and Barbara moved around a lot during their first eight months of marriage as his Navy assignments took him around the country.

During their marriage, Barbara and George had six children together, fourteen grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. The first child, future US President George W. Bush, was born after his father was out of the Navy and a student at Yale. After graduating Yale, George, Barbara, and their son moved to Odessa, Texas, where George entered the oil business.

Barbara was pregnant with her second child in September of 1949 when her parents were in a car accident in New York, in which her mother was killed. Because of her pregnancy, Barbara was advised to avoid travel to New York to attend her mother’s funeral. The baby was born not long after and was named Pauline Robinson Bush, after Barbara’s mother. Pauline, who was called “Robin,” died of leukemia when she was three years old.

Barbara and George moved around a lot during their marriage, as George’s interests in the oil industry took him around the country. They would, in fact, move around thirty times during their marriage. These moves allowed George to build a real business in the oil industry, and the family prospered.

George’s success in the oil business allowed him the local renown in Texas he needed to enter politics. He began his political career in 1963 when he was elected as the Harris County Republican Party chairman. This was the first of many elections for George, and Barbara became a political wife.

Eventually, George became Vice-President of the United States under President Ronald Reagan, and then President, after Ronald served his two terms. As First Lady, Barbara’s major cause was family literacy. She was involved in many different literacy groups and helped create the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. She particularly wanted to promote programs where children and parents would learn to read together, in order to eliminate the generational cycle of illiteracy in the USA. She also promoted the importance of reading aloud to children. Barbara continued to be active in the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy for the rest of her life.

As First Lady, Barbara was also active in the White House Historical Association and did work to help revitalize the White House Preservation Fund (which she re-dubbed the White House Endowment Trust). The trust raises money to aid in refurbishing and restoring the White House, which, as a historic building, has ongoing restoration and refurbishing needs. The staff at the White House commented that Barbara was the friendliest First Lady they had encountered and was also the easiest with whom to work. She was well liked by those who had worked at the White House for years or even decades.

When George was going for re-election in 1992, Barbara let it be publicly known that she believed the issues of homosexuality and abortion were personal ones, and that government should stay out of it; she opposed the Republican Party taking a stand on these issues for this reason. While she never publicly gave her opinion on the morality of these issues, her friends have reported that she supported women having the right to get an abortion, stating that while she hated the idea of abortions, she would never presume to make that choice for someone else.

Barbara was more popular with the public than either Nancy Reagan who came before her, or Hillary Clinton, who came after her. This is attributed to the fact that she was careful to avoid controversy, and rarely took any public positions on divisive issues.

After they left the White House, Barbara and George spent their time at their home in Houston, Texas, and the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Upon a visit by their eldest son after leaving the White House, Barbara realized she had not cooked in twelve years, and that it had been so long since she drove on her own, she had trouble with it, which prompted George to warn the locals in Houston to get out of the way if they saw Barbara on the road behind the wheel of a car.

Barbara died at her house in Houston on April 17, 2018, at the age of 92, due to a variety of long-time health issues and old age. Her funeral was at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, which was attended by former US Presidents Obama and Clinton, as well as former First Ladies Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, and current First Lady Melania Trump. Barbara was buried at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, where George will one day be beside her.

Barbara is only the second woman in the United States history to have been both a wife and mother of US Presidents, with Abigail Adams being the other.