Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Barbara Bush

After winning the Republican nomination for President in 1988, George H.W. Bush announced, "If I win, Americans will fall in love with Barbara Bush." He was right. Barbara Pierce Bush's comfort with her grandmotherly image, her graciousness, and her ability to poke fun at herself endeared her to the nation. Capitalizing on the esteem of both the public and the press, the First Lady used her popularity to focus attention on those causes she considered important.

Barbara Bush toured homeless shelters, day-care centers, and hospitals, where she spent time with children suffering from leukemia, becoming a living memorial to a daughter who died of the disease. She physically embraced those suffering from AIDS, assuring Americans that they could not contract the disease through casual contact. She promoted volunteerism and programs that assisted the elderly and urged a more conciliatory approach toward gays in the Republican Party.

But Barbara Bush's major interest was the cause of literacy. She believed that literacy "fits in with so many other things. If more people could read, fewer people would have AIDS. There would be less homelessness. I'm absolutely convinced of that." She was also sure that a higher literacy rate would mean fewer social ills, including less crime, violence, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy. Barbara was committed to increasing the literacy rate in the United States and used the power of her office to realize that goal. She wrote two children's books on the issue of literacy and donated the proceeds to its advancement. She discussed the importance of reading on the Oprah Winfrey show, wrote about it for Reader's Digest, and made it the focus of her weekly radio show for children, "Mrs. Bush's Story Hour." She attended hundreds of events geared to literacy, including school visits and General Educational Development (GED) graduations. She also established the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy that solicited public and private donations for literacy programs.

Barbara's support of literacy endeared her to thousands of Americans, but not everyone was impressed. In 1990, some students at Wellesley College protested her appearance as that school's commencement speaker. Opponents argued that inviting First Lady Barbara Bush, whose national significance was due only to her husband's achievements, was not in keeping with the Wellesley way. Despite the unfriendly atmosphere, she addressed the graduates, winning over many of her critics with her conclusion alone: "Who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president's spouse. And I wish him well."

Her comments were not made simply to engender good will among the nation's youth. Barbara Bush believed women of all ages were equal to numerous challenges -- including those of military combat and government service. Indeed, she asserted, "I think many women, certainly of my generation, can run the world." Such comments diverged from the traditional and matronly image Barbara Bush conveyed. But under the faux pearls and the conservative suits was a First Lady who had sharp political instincts and got angry -- but only in private -- when insults were hurled at her husband. George Bush acknowledged this less well-known side of his wife when he claimed, "She'll go to bat for me, sometimes more than I'm inclined myself. She'll take 'em on head-to-head, dog eat dog. And that's fine. I'm glad to have her defending me. I'd rather have her on my side than not."

While the First Lady was on the President's side in public, she occasionally disagreed with him in private. Barbara Bush had more moderate views than the President on issues such as abortion and women in combat, but kept her opinions largely to herself. In contrast, she served openly as her husband's sounding board and urged him to increase funding for AIDS and Head Start programs.

Barbara Bush's political views, wit, and overall popularity with the American people generated high demand for her as a speaker. She campaigned for congressional candidates in the midterm election, becoming the first First Lady to campaign by herself for members of her husband's party. She also spoke before the 1992 Republican National Convention. Although attacks on Democratic challenger Bill Clinton's wife had become a staple of Republican strategy, Barbara Bush thought such tactics were inappropriate and chose instead to focus attention on her husband and his strengths as President.

Despite Barbara's popularity among the American people and her ardent support of her husband, George Bush lost his bid for reelection in 1992. Although Barbara was First Lady for only four years, her name has become synonymous with a nationwide campaign for literacy. Her commitment to her cause, even as she suffered the effects of Graves disease, never faltered. While she brought no great innovations to the Office of the First Lady, her style and maternal sensitivity made both the woman -- as well as the office -- extremely popular with voters. These qualities also engendered comparisons with Eleanor Roosevelt, for her nurturing and commitment to causes and projects assisting the less fortunate.

Such a comparison must have been a welcome one for Barbara Bush, who was keenly aware of her predecessors' legacies. She discovered that "they all had something I might try to emulate, for instance, Eleanor Roosevelt -- caring. Bess Truman, took care of Harry, Lady Bird Johnson, grace under pressure. Nancy Reagan -- protected the White House." But while Barbara might gain inspiration from those who had come before her, she did not intend to imitate anyone, believing that "each spouse has to define the job for herself." Not only did Barbara Pierce Bush define the role of First Lady for herself, she became a definitive First Lady for all time.