In rewinding the life and times of beloved former first lady Barbara Bush, one might best view them as a study in contrasts.
In many respects, Mrs. Bush, who died Tuesday of Grave’s disease at age 92, wore the title of “America’s Grandma” exceedingly well.
In other respects, her sharp-tongued style and disciplinarian demeanor made her live up to her familial nickname, “The Enforcer.”
Today as throngs gather at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston for her wake before Saturday’s invitation-only funeral there, they will pay their heart-felt respects to Barbara Pierce Bush, who most assuredly must count among this nation’s most endearing first ladies.
With her loving and powerful husband, former President George H.W. Bush, she stood proudly as the highly protective matriarch of a large prominent family of six children, 14 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Among them were another U.S. president and a state governor, evidence of her spot-on skills at effective child-rearing.
But her maternal instincts of caring and devotion spread far beyond the confines of the family abode.
From giving of her time to cheer children and adults suffering from acquired immune deficiency syndrome to assisting the Salvation Army in its signature Christmas bell-ringing campaigns to promoting the rewards of literacy, the former first and second lady of this nation embodied the quintessential grandmotherly qualities of patience, empathy, generosity and unconditional love.
But those close to Mrs. Bush knew very well The Enforcer was no shrinking violet.
For example, she dared to defy conventional political wisdom by separating herself from doctrinaire Republican philosophies. She was an ardent supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, favored an assault-rifle ban and sided with the pro-choice movement in the intense national debate over abortion.
At times, that grandmotherly demeanor would yield to biting and acidic rhetoric. During her husband’s 1988 campaign for the presidency, for example, she spoke not so kindly of Geraldine Ferraro, the running mate of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis.
When asked to describe the New York congresswoman, she retorted, “I can’t say it, but it rhymes with ‘rich.’” (She soon thereafter apologized to Ferraro,)
More than any other qualities, we’re certain many will most remember Mrs. Bush as a classy and down-to-earth role model who never took herself all too seriously.
“I just go blindly on my own dumb way and have fun and try to be helpful,” she told reporters in 1992.
Her lasting physical legacy may well be her contributions to literacy enhancement in this nation. She called it “the most important issue we have.”
Mrs. Bush had developed a passion for reading from her father Marvin Pierce, a native of nearby Sharpsville, Pa., who would later go on to become president of McCall Corp., publisher of Redbook and McCall’s magazines.
Throughout her life, she became involved with myriad literacy-promoting organizations. She developed the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.
Since its founding in 1989, that foundation has raised more than $110 million to create or expand family literacy programs in all 50 states.
Those who wish to make a meaningful and fitting tribute to Mrs. Bush would do well to consider a memorial gift to the foundation, accessible online at www.barbarabushlegacy.org.
To be sure, Mrs. Bush lived a long, productive and admirable life. In the words of English author and poet Rudyard Kipling, she most assuredly filled “each unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run.”
That helps to explain her broad-based and nonpartisan popularity through her husband’s presidency and long beyond. A 2014 Gallup Poll found 77 percent of all Americans viewed her favorably.
Her charismatic personality, indomitable spirit and intestinal fortitude will endure as exemplary traits for other first ladies. They also provide comfort to those who knew and loved her.
As son and former President George W. Bush tweeted, ‘‘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. I’m a lucky man that Barbara Bush was my mother. Our family will miss her dearly.”
And so, too, will this nation.