The Charm of Barbara Bush

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in The Pioneer Press in 1999. With the author’s permission, we have republished it here. 

Former First Lady Barbara Bush has survived, in her words, “a 54-year marriage, 14 grandchildren, four wars, three dress sizes and two parachute jumps.” She told a capacity audience of 1,100 at Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Hall last Thursday, “The more you persevere, the richer life gets.” 

The event was a benefit for the Junior League of Evanston-North Shore, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

Bush’s life is rich indeed. In her speech listed what is important to herFamily, children, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and other humanitarian causes.

 Her husband is her touchstone and she is quick to point out that no one would be interested in her if she hadn’t “married well.”

 “Life with George Bush is the same as it was from day one, interesting and exciting,” Bush said.

 From the moment the former first lady took the stage, she captivated the audience with her presence, style, energy and quick wit. There was an immediate sense that this is an endearing, polished, humorous woman, who in spite of her public life, manages to be down to earth.

 The mother of two governors, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who is running for president, she reminded the audience that “one out of eight Americans is governed by a Bush” and “you knew I was going to mention them didn’t you?” 

Bush, a past member of the Junior League told the audience, that it was a relief to speak to people with whom she has something in common.

 She then went into a routine about the groups she has spoken to recently and her husband’s comments. The audience was shown a side of the former first lady and president reminiscent of George Burns and Gracie Allen.

 “When I told George that I was scheduled to speak to the Economic Club of Ypsilanti, Michigan, he couldn’t stop laughing. Then he reminded me that I was the one who said that I couldn’t possibly be overdrawn because I had 15 checks left,” Bush said.

 Bush said she was excited to speak at an ophthalmology conference because “eyes are two of my favorite body parts … they need neither constant diet nor exercise.”

 Speaking of her talk to the National Association of Plastic Surgeons, Bush said, “I was scared to death they would all rush the stage just to get their hands on me.” 

And while preparing to speak before a group of veterinarians, Barbara said that her husband told her that he knew of a veterinarian who merged his business with a taxidermist. The slogan was “either way you get your dog back.”

 Since leaving the White House in 1993, the former first lady has maintained a full schedule. She promotes the Barbara Bush Family Literacy Foundation; serves as AmeriCares ambassador at large; serves on the board of the Mayo Clinic; and supports many other agencies, including the Ronald McDonald House, the Leukemia Society of America and the Boys and Girls Club of America. 

Bush was proud to say that The M.D. Anderson Cancer Center recently held a 75th birthday party for George Bush and raised over $10 million in one evening. 

The Bushes love to spend time with family and friends. They spend their summers in Kennebunkport, Maine, and their home is always full of guests. 

“Everyone George meets, he invites,” Barbara Bush said. “We had over 125 overnight guests this past year. There were family, friends, friends of friends and several neither George nor I knew,” she quipped.

 Bush told the audience that she puts a priority on families, and worries that today’s world moves too fast, that families spend less time talking together and sharing meals.

 She stressed the importance of reading to children and setting an example by having children seeing their parents read.

 “The average kindergarten child has seen 5,000 hours of TV, more time than it takes to get a college degree,” Bush said.

 Bush encourages parents to forget the dishes, laundry and unmade beds, because “when you sit with your arms around your children, read to them and have them read to you, there is nothing better.” 

“Home is your first school and we are their first teachers,” Bush said. 

During questions and answers from the audience Bush was asked how she handles public criticism. Again, she quotes George Bush who always tells her to “stop yelling at the TV”. She often retreats with romance novels and and cited Maeve Binchy, Rosalind Pilcher and Mary Higgins Clark among her favorite authors.

 On the topic of controversial new biography of Ronald Reagan, Bush is not happy. 

“George saw him (Reagan) everyday and some of the things Morris said make me furious. Funny, everyone I know that he quoted, including us, he didn’t talk to,” Barbara Bush said.

 When asked about the likelihood of a woman president, Bush responded, “Absolutely, and she will be a Republican. But not for about eight years,” she said.

 Bush told the audience during the question period, “I’m really not good at this.” And in her own endearing way, she added, “I am the most spoiled woman in America. What am I doing here tonight?” I’m really not good at this. I am the most spoiled woman in America. What am I doing here tonight? Former First Lady Barbara Bush. 

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