Former first lady Barbara Bush passed away Tuesday evening from complications related to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and congestive heart failure. Earlier this week the Bush family released a statement saying that after a “recent series of hospitalizations,” she decided to stop receiving medical care and was focusing on “comfort care.”
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“It will not surprise those who know her that Barbara Bush has been a rock in the face of her failing health, worrying not for herself — thanks to her abiding faith — but for others,” the statement said. “She is surrounded by a family she adores, and appreciates the many kind messages and especially the prayers she is receiving.”
Her bouts of ill health had become more frequent in the last decade, during which she was also hospitalized for an ulcer, an aortic valve replacement and a relapse of the autoimmune-related Graves’ disease, with which she was diagnosed in 1988. However, through it all, she had continued to display the characteristic energy and compassion that made her one of the most popular first ladies in modern history, tirelessly persevering in her charitable work and in the support of her famously political family.
A cursory examination of Barbara Bush’s early life quickly uncovers the roots of most of her later endeavors. Born Barbara Pierce on June 8, 1925, she was raised in an upper-class family in Rye, New York. Her mother, Pauline, was a housewife with a deep interest in gardening, and her father, Marvin Pierce, a direct descendant of the 14th president of the United States, Franklin Pierce, was president of the magazine publishing company McCall. Consequently, Barbara’s interest in both gardening and reading developed early and indeed would remain with her until her passing.
But it was her introduction to high school senior George Herbert Walker Bush at a Christmas dance in 1941 that would most profoundly impact the course of her life. The two married in 1945, shortly after he returned from serving as a Navy bomber during World War II, and the next two decades would be defined by a whirlwind of travel as they moved about the country, first for George’s military posts, then when he was accepted at Yale and later as he pursued his career in the oil industry in Texas. Along the way, Barbara also gave birth to six children, including future president George Walker Bush, Pauline Robinson Bush (whose death at the age of 3 would inspire Barbara’s lifelong involvement with leukemia and cancer charities), future Florida governor Jeb Bush and Neil Mallon Bush (whose dyslexia further inspired Barbara’s interest in literacy).
In the mid-’60s, George H.W. Bush’s political career began in earnest, as did Barbara’s active role in his campaigns. After losing a bid for senator in 1964, George was elected to Congress in 1966 and the family moved to Washington. While there, Barbara raised their children, worked with local charities and wrote a column called “Washington Scene” for Houston newspapers. She continued her charitable work and steadfast support of her husband and family throughout the 1970s, during which time George served as ambassador to the UN, chairman of the Republican National Committee and head of the CIA.
When George took a shot at the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, Barbara again campaigned for her husband, choosing to speak publicly about his strengths as a family man rather than as a candidate, and typically avoiding any direct discussion of political topics. It was an approach that made her very popular with both the public and the press, and one that she would use to her advantage in the years to come as well. Although George ultimately lost to Ronald Reagan, he was selected as Reagan’s running mate and served as his vice president from 1981 to 1989, during which time Barbara, as second lady, consciously downplayed her presence so as not to steal the spotlight from first lady Nancy Reagan, choosing instead to keep her focus on family and charity work.
But the Bushes soon took center stage, when, in 1988, George was elected the 41st president of the United States. As she had previously, Barbara chose to avoid direct involvement in George’s political career and instead used her influence as first lady to raise support for the charities most important to her. Closest to her heart was combating illiteracy in the United States, so in 1989 she established the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. Over the more than two decades since its creation, the organization has donated more than $40 million in support of literacy programs nationwide.
Other social problems that she devoted herself to during this time included support for civil rights, the fight against homelessness and teen pregnancy and a push to raise AIDS awareness. In fact, Barbara is considered to have been a primary behind-the-scenes influence in George having increased funding for AIDS research and treatment as well as his signing of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act.
Although George H.W. Bush failed to win a second term, life after the White House did not take Barbara far from either politics or her passions. Since 1992, Barbara Bush had continued to actively support a variety of charitable causes, working directly with organizations such as AmeriCares, the Leukemia Society, the Ronald McDonald House and the Boys and Girls Club of America, as well as with her literacy foundation, serving as its honorary chair and hosting its regular fundraising events. She also found the time to author two autobiographies, Barbara Bush: A Memoir (1994) and Reflections: Life After the White House (2004), and spoke at both the 2000 and 2004 Republican National Conventions in support of her son George W. Bush in his two successful campaigns for the presidency.
In January 2015, for the eighth consecutive year, Barbara participated in a literacy conference at the George Bush Presidential Library. During the event, which was broadcast via satellite to participants around the world, she discussed the importance of reading and fielded questions on a variety of topics. Ever the mother—or “everybody’s grandmother,” as she sometimes referred to herself—she also took a moment to bristle at the press’s treatment of her family, particularly in regards to her son Jeb, who unsuccessfully ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Barbara Bush is survived by her husband, five children and their spouses, 17 grandchildren, seven great grandchildren, and her brother, Scott Pierce.