If you find yourself surprisingly sad about the passing of a former first lady and a bit nostalgic about her distinctive helmet of white hair and fake pearls, you are in good company. Many of us are more than a little teary-eyed about the death of a woman married for over seven decades who scolded her kids for bragging (back in the Dark Ages when humility was a virtue) and devoted her entire adult life to her family and public service. It is not simply the loss of a person, but also the loss of a code of conduct for public officials that may account for the bipartisan outpouring of admiration and affection we now see.
Frankly, her death during the Trump era — during the presidency of a man who is the antithesis of George H.W. Bush — reminds us of our own shabby political culture that we have come to believe is inevitable and normal.
Bush was the bipartisan matron and gracious host, the self-effacing philanthropist who took life’s tragedies (the death of a daughter) and turned them into a lifelong cause (fighting childhood leukemia). Her son Neil struggled with dyslexia; Bush became a dogged advocate for literacy. She understood that with the role of first lady came not just an opportunity to live well but also the obligation to do good. She never considered shirking public duties because one was shy or self-conscious or just didn’t care for public life. It wasn’t about what she wanted, but what was expected.
Yet Bush was no defender of the old guard. Time magazine put it this way:
Barbara has been most influential on issues that concern her deeply or where her husband is behind the curve, like AIDS, the homeless, civil rights and education. In the late 1950s, she battled segregationist innkeepers who refused to let the family’s black baby-sitter stay with them in the same hotel. She was instrumental in the appointment of the only black in Bush’s Cabinet, Dr. Louis Sullivan, whom she came to know from her work at [Atlanta’s Morehouse School of Medicine].
It was Barbara’s visits to AIDS hospitals in Harlem that nudged her husband into endorsing additional federal funds for fighting the disease when the Reagan Administration was still balking. Similarly, after an early debate when her husband brushed aside a question about the homeless with boiler plate about housing, Barbara exhorted him to make homelessness a campaign issue. “She really talked hard at him,” said an aide, “and rode him until he got it right.” Barbara’s interest in children and literacy, meanwhile, helped Bush commit himself to being the “education President.” “Every time he says ‘Head Start,’ that’s Bar,” says Sheila Tate, Bush’s transition spokeswoman.
The contrast between the Bushes and the current White House inhabitants could not be greater. Bush 41 is the epitome of the Greatest Generation, polite to a fault (famous for his thank-you notes) and averse to anything that might be construed as boasting. Use bone spurs to get out of military service? Bush was the youngest aviator in the Navy to serve in World War II. Stoke the fires of racial resentment and xenophobia? Even as a congressman from Texas, Bush voted for the 1968 Fair Housing Act and supported access to birth control. As president, he signed legislation to increase immigration. Mock the disabled? Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act. Suck up to a Russian kleptocrat, insult a woman or go back on his word? Bush 41 couldn’t conceive of such things.
Bush and his wife treated Democrats and Republicans alike with respect. They were, in the best sense of the word, genteel people. It never would have crossed their minds to lie (consistently!) to make themselves look good, devise mocking nicknames for other public figures, decline to do their homework on whatever the policy issue of the moment was, enrich themselves by the presidency while in office or tolerate pandemic corruption in the West Wing and Cabinet.
The grace, honor and decency Barbara Bush and her husband displayed are entirely absent in President Trump and his clan of grifters. As much as the Bushes elevated the White House, Trump defiles it. Republicans now would have us believe character doesn’t matter in a president. What utter rubbish. Think how much better the country would be with a modern-day Barbara and George H.W. Bush in the White House. We’ll miss Barbara Bush for her unique quirks and personal accomplishments, but more than that we will miss the code of public service she and her husband exemplified.