This is what I thought when I first met her: “She is a strong woman, not ego-driven but protective of kith and kin. Those merry eyes, the warmth, the ability to get the help cracking in a jolly way and then not so jolly. A lack of pretension, a breeziness, but underneath she is Greenwich granite, one of the women who settled the hard gray shores of the East and summoned roses from the rocks.”
That’s how I saw Barbara Bush 30 years ago and wrote in a book, and though I wouldn’t put it in quite those words today—Greenwich, Conn. has granite mostly in its supply outlets, and she grew up a few miles away, in Rye, N.Y.—it’s still how I see her.
So many words have been said of her this week, all of them true—tough, funny, hardy, sensitive to those in trouble. I’d add:
She is being celebrated so warmly in part because she reminds us of how normal American political figures used to act before this garish age. We have a newfound appreciation.
She was beautiful. She had no physical vanity and in fact mocked her looks: The strings of pearls were to hide her neck wrinkles, when her hair turned white it turned white. But the bones of her face were strong and delicate, and her eyes sparkled.
Her life spanned. As a child she used to see a young pilot named Amelia Earhart, who briefly lived nearby. She was scared by the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. She saw the Hindenburg over Long Island Sound. She lived through World War II as a Navy wife, was a participant in history from China during Mao through the fall of the Berlin Wall. She was part of the whole shebang.
As the journalist and historian Sally Bedell Smith said, “She was a great dame.”
And we are not truthful when, on TV, we use the dumb, plonking language of public death: “America is heartbroken today.” It is not. It looks at that stupendous life and feels two things, gratitude and respect.
Her death has me thinking about what first ladies—let’s cut to the chase and say first spouses, for there will be a first gent soon enough and there’s no reason language shouldn’t precede events—do. What do we ask of them?
To keep it all together, the public and the private, in a high-stakes atmosphere of daily and dramatic stress. You must be a person of balance. There’s a lot to manage: staff, state dinners, kids, friends and relatives, your spouse in an impossible job. You must perform within a context of fame, which means the mistakes you make, and have made, become famous.
It takes a lot to achieve adequacy in such a role, never mind perform it well.
The historian Michael Beschloss, completing his decadelong work on his coming book, “Presidents of War,” took time to think aloud about the role’s essentials.
It is not a constitutional role and in a way the drafters, as they often did, left it to President Washington to figure out. “George made it George and Martha,” Mr. Beschloss said. “She was his friend, wife, partner, hostess.” She helped build the public stage. “They created at Mount Vernon a setting that was up to the standard of what a great leader’s home would be—a proper frame for George Washington. ” The first ladies who followed, Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison (Jefferson was a widower), “were conscious of being like Martha—the national mother.” Had Washington not had the wife he did, “history could have unreeled differently.”
A baseline necessity of the role: “Trying to ensure the happiness and tranquillity of the president.” One heroic example: Lady Bird Johnson. Lyndon B. Johnson suffered mood swings. He got “too excited and too upset about things that are a moderate political problem,” and too depressed about serious problems. “She was enormously sensitive to his moods. She pulled him up when he was down and back to earth when he was up.” When first spouses perform this role well, “it’s not only good for the president, it’s good for the republic.”
Next, “helping the president achieve in his chief-of-state role.” A first spouse must be able to do ceremony. Here Jackie Kennedy set the standard. “Many of the ceremonies that are now associated with the White House—formal welcoming events on the South Lawn, fife and drum, people in colonial costume—were begun by her.” Mrs. Kennedy “was sensitive to the importance of ceremony in the U.S. being seen as a great power. Why should the French do it better?”
Another part of the job: policy influencer. Mr. Beschloss cites Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosalynn Carter and Hillary Clinton as “great political partners.” For others the depth of their involvement becomes clear to historians with time. Nancy Reagan famously had an impact on her husband’s view of staff and appointees. History has come to understand Jackie Kennedy did too.
First spouses have profound cultural power. When Mrs. Kennedy had Pablo Casals play at the White House, she was saying high art not only has a revered place in the people’s house, it has a high role in the people’s lives. Lady Bird’s cause was getting America to clean up its physical environment. When she became first lady in 1963 we were a nation that threw the Coke bottle out of the car onto the country road. By the time she left, somehow we didn’t.
Barbara Bush’s cause was literacy, and she worked it hard until the day she died. Mr. Beschloss mentions another area in which she made a contribution, mental health. She had suffered from depression in the 1970s and spoke of it in the White House. In her memoir, Mrs. Bush wrote: “I felt ashamed. I had a husband whom I adored, the world’s greatest children, more friends than I could see—and I was severely depressed.” She had suicidal thoughts: “Sometimes the pain was so great, I felt the urge to drive into a tree or an oncoming car.” When she was in the White House, Mr. Beschloss notes, there was “still a stigma” to mental-health problems and Mrs. Bush’s frankness was “bold and helpful.” She urged people not to tough it out but get help.
A final part of being a good first spouse: being the president’s radar. Mrs. Bush, like Mrs. Reagan, had sharp eyes and a certain skepticism about people and their motives. “They were good at spotting dangers in people. There’s an element of ‘the kindly president and the first lady who thinks the president is too good for this world.’ Ronald Reagan and George Bush found wives who provided for them what they could not do themselves.”
A final part of the job: to model dignified behavior for a nation that always benefits from the sight of it. Good first spouses know the institution they represent, the American presidency, has height. They portray that height each day by behaving with patience, humor, kindliness.
Mr. Beschloss felt we’ve been lucky in the first ladies of the recent past. He’s right, isn’t he? Whatever party, whatever foibles, the institution has stood the test of time.
So thank you, George and Martha. And thank you, George and Barbara.