Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and is the executive producer of the documentary “41ON41,” which stars Barbara Bush. She is currently a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
The first time I met Barbara Bush, I was wearing her bathing suit. I was terrified. She was gracious.
It was June 1993, and George H.W. Bush had invited several speechwriters to Kennebunkport, Maine, to work on a few post-presidential addresses. As noon approached, the president announced that we’d “go for a dip” in the icy Maine surf. Next thing I knew, he was handing me a bathing suit — a skirted one-piece — that belonged to his wife and announcing I had no excuse.
As we headed to the pool — the presidential plan had us stopping there to “get used to the water” — I spied the former first lady with several of her Texas friends. “Ladies!” called out the president. “You know my speechwriters, don’t you?” Not wanting her to think I had rifled through her closet and helped myself, I said, “Pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Bush. I hope you don’t mind that your husband loaned me your bathing suit.”
I gulped, waiting for a legendary Barbara Bush takedown.
There was none. She simply laughed and said, “I’m so glad we had a suit for you — have fun!” And that was one of the first of many lessons I was to learn from Mrs. Bush: If you want to enjoy life, you’ve got to be able to roll with it. She always made room for all the long-lost friends, the unexpected dinner guests, the staffers needing bathing suits.
There was one lost soul she took in years ago, a near-deaf orphaned young man named Don Rhodes who volunteered for her husband’s 1964 Senate campaign. The Bushes kept him on their personal payroll until his death in his 70s; they were as generous to Don as they were quiet about it. Not many people knew about Don, to the point that if folks told me they were “very good friends” of the Bushes, I’d reply, “Oh, then you must know Don Rhodes?” If the answer was no, that told me all I needed to know.
Some funeral observers will notice that the first lady will be buried next to her daughter Robin. What many won’t know is that Don’s ashes are scattered over the family gravesite, so that he could be with them as well. The Bushes — not Don — requested that.
The way Mrs. Bush took in so many showed me two additional lessons: not only what it means to be big-hearted, but also how to be quiet about it. She was unfailingly generous, but she tolerated no horn-tooting.
A few years ago, Mrs. Bush told me she had “none of the responsibilities and all of the joys of being the wife of George Bush.” The truth is she had tremendous responsibilities. She raised six children in 29 homes in 17 different cities. Each of her surviving children was successful — but more important, she made sure they became decent, caring, gracious people. All of them have that same twinkle in their eyes that she had, the same quick wit and easy laugh. All of them have been unceasingly kind to me, as she was.
When she lost one of her children to leukemia — Robin, at age 3 — she began a lifelong commitment to raising money for cancer research, so that fewer parents would have to go through what she did. When another of her children — Neil, in early high school — was diagnosed with dyslexia, she wanted to make sure others would never struggle with literacy. Very few are aware that she and her husband have raised countless millions of dollars for both cancer research and literacy. The Bushes were quiet about that, too.
The last time I saw Mrs. Bush, it was a spectacularly beautiful day in East Texas, at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University. Historian Jon Meacham and I were sitting with the 41s, as they are called, on their patio enjoying the afternoon.
At one point, the name of one of her high school classmates came up, and a grinning George Bush told us that the young man had once taken Barbara out for a date. “You know, he was very interested in the Silver Fox,” he teased. She smiled and declared she had never so much as kissed the guy, and then told us for the umpteenth time that she had married the first boy she ever kissed. “Believe me,” she said, eyeing her husband of 73 years, “he was no George Bush.”
She once told me that the last thing she and George did every night was to debate who loved the other more, before falling asleep holding hands. In addition to her husband, she was loved by millions of Americans who admired her quiet leadership, her unfailing grace and her everyday integrity.
What a life she led. What a family she built. What a legacy she leaves. America already misses you terribly, Mrs. Bush.