Barbara Bush was an American original

Barbara Bush just passed away, how would you assess her influence over Bush political dynasty and maybe also over American society and politics? Read few comments.

RIP Barbara Bush (1925-2018). Credit:


Russell Riley, Professor and Co-chair of the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program, University of Virginia

Mrs. Bush was in some ways an old-fashioned first lady.  She was well out of public view on her husband’s major policymaking decisions, and she was intent on not being seen as a power behind the throne (as Nancy Reagan was). And she certainly was not a policy actor in her own right along the lines of Hillary Clinton.  But it would be a big mistake to dismiss her influence on the political dynasty based on this inactivity on policy. She was fiercely defensive of her husband—and indeed of the entire Bush family. In many ways, then, George W. Bush, her oldest son, was more like his mother than his father.  They valued loyalty and had a sixth sense for people who were attaching themselves to the family for their own purposes rather than in support of the Bushes themselves.

My recollection is that she did not have much of a public profile until 1988. (It was a different time then—no social media and no 24-hour news cycle). So when she was introduced to the public then, her appearance was visually striking—white haired and matronly, which stood in contrast to the still-youthful appearance of her boyish husband.  But the campaign staff then referred to her as a secret weapon—because of her retail political skills (talent in working small groups) and because of her role in protecting her husband.  There was also the achingly sad story of their personal loss of a young daughter in Texas years before, which I have heard was when her hair went white.  As her public image emerged, she became known for all these things—and I think it’s fair to say that there was almost no negative feelings about her in the United States—which is remarkable in our politically polarized environment.  Moreover, I am sure that when Laura Bush came along she knew intuitively which model of service as first lady she would follow.

Gil Troy, Professor of History, McGill University

Barbara Bush was an American original. She was born into the WASP upper crust — she is not just the wife and mother of presidents, she is the descendant of presidents including Franklin Pierce (note her maiden name)…
And she was part of that Greatest Generation that lived by American ideals – yet also saw many of them rejected, repudiated… (while others, of course were fulfilled)…

Barbara Bush’s great achievement: she was sandwiched between two extremely unpopular First Ladies – Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton – both of them, in different ways, crossed the invisible, quite sexist, lines around the “First Lady’s” role. Both, in different ways, believed the propaganda that the first lady’s role is “what you make it” – when, in fact, there are clear, if unspoken, unwritten, dos and don’ts – including don’t look too interested in power. Despite these obstacles, and despite being a rather formidable woman who could have easily been demonized by reporters — whom she often dressed down – Barbara Bush squared the circle. She showed how to be respected as substantive, contribute symbolically to the presidency –  thus boosting the president’s popularity – and yet remain within the traditional boundaries too. Since her, our two quite popular First Ladies, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama, followed the Barbara Bush model… earning respect as thoughtful, caring, engaged presidential spouses, without triggering the sexist fears Hillary Clinton or Nancy Reagan did about some “Lady Macbeth” seizing power. That’s quite an achievement — especially in the polarized and hostile environment in which she – and all of them as well as their husbands – have operated.

Robert BusbySenior Lecturer in Politics, Liverpool Hope University

Barbara Bush was a very respected First Lady and of course mother to a 2 term president. She was quite conservative in her approach to the role of First Lady, leaving the political issues to her husband and son. In many respect she engaged in her role in a very traditional form, which contrasted in the way that her successor to the role, Hillary Clinton operated in the office. She was involved in a number of projects, primarily in encouraging literacy schemes and in seeking to improve education, which she has been complimented on in her latter years. While she supported her husband in the 1992 presidential campaign against Bill Clinton there were stark contrasts in that election about how the First Lady portrayed herself. Barbara Bush played heavily on concepts of domestication and of being a mother and a wife. Hillary Clinton played much more strongly on the idea of being a working mother and of having a more modern and independent role.  Nonetheless Barbara Bush was thought of in positive terms and her legacy is of having been a First Lady who was a credit to that office and a person who was very much a lynchpin at the centre of the Bush political dynasty.

Betty Winfield, Professor Emerita of Journalism, University of Missouri

Strong family loyalty even when sons had problems:  George W & alcoholism; Niel and Savings & Loan debacle.  Also, outspoken on views and expectations: the Bush twin granddaughters who were caught as underage alcohol drinkers when their dad George W Bush as president.

I think that Barbara Bush’s legacy was the  public contrasts of expectations — the traditional role of the supportive wife of the president and the new role of highly educated professional women.  After Mrs Bush were many First Lady studies/books/attention of the contrasts of the public role of the American woman. Mrs. Bush, a very traditional woman of her generation and economic status of a supportive wife, an appendage, exemplified one type of upper class woman.  Her primary identity was as a wife, mother, grandmother –through her husband’s work and status.

The next First Lady was quite different. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton was a generation younger, a career professional touted as one of the top 100 U.S. Attorneys,  as well as a wife and mother. In other words, Hillary Clinton had her own professional identity who just happened to be married to the Arkansas governor, a presidential candidate and then the president.  She was more than an appendage, she was a satellite.

For many people Mrs. Clinton was controversial, not fulfilling an expected role. In that span of First Lady history, she served as a transitional figure to the 21st century upper class American woman: highly educated, with a separate goals and on one sense an identity of her own. Note: Mrs. Clinton was followed by Michele Obama, another highly educated attorney.  Yet, Mrs. Obama reverted back to a traditional role and played down her credentials. At the same time, the Vice President’s wife Jill Biden, kept working as a college professor.

Now, Melania Trump as First Lady had her husband talking about her high IQ and facility with many languages, but she has pretty much hidden in the White House, much like the latter 19th century First Ladies.

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