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Remembering Barbara Bush, political dynasty matriarch

We look back at the life of former first lady Barbara Bush. Son and former President George W. Bush describes his family saying goodbye in a conversation with Amy Holmes and Michael Gerson, then Judy Woodruff gets remembrances from Susan Page of USA Today, C. Boyden Gray, White House counsel to President George H.W. Bush and Bonnie Steinroeder, former pastor at the First Congregational Church of Kennebunkport.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    She was a wife and mother to presidents, but a lack of pretension and a sense of humor that could be self-deprecating were what endeared Barbara Bush to the American people.

    She stood out in a crowd, with a shock of white hair that earned her the family nickname Silver Fox. It was part of Barbara Bush's determination to be herself, as she recalled in 2004 for a PBS documentary.

  • Barbara Bush:

    Who's jealous of an overweight, white-haired woman? Nobody. So, I think that was in my benefit, in a way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The future first lady was born Barbara Pierce in New York City in 1925, to Marvin and Pauline Pierce. Her father was president of McCall Corporation, of "Redbook" and "McCall" magazine fame.

    The family lived in Rye, New York, where Barbara grew up with three siblings. From there, she went off to Smith College, but in 1945, she dropped out to marry George Bush, who was on leave from the Navy. They'd met four years earlier.

    The couple moved to Texas in 1948 with their first child, a son, George W. He was soon joined by a sister, Robin. But she developed leukemia and died at the age of 3, a tragedy that reshaped the family.

    Three other children followed, and Barbara went on to oversee a total of 27 moves, as her husband's career took them around the world, from Texas, where he built his fortune in the oil fields, to politics and public life. In the 1960s and '70s, Barbara was by his side for two losing U.S. Senate bids, a winning campaign for a U.S. House seat, and stints as U.N. ambassador, chair of the Republican Party and CIA director.

    In 1980, he ran for president and ultimately ended up as Ronald Reagan's running mate. As a political spouse, Barbara Bush's wry sense of humor endeared her to many, but she later acknowledged it didn't suit everyone.

  • Barbara Bush:

    Well, I tried to behave myself, but I'm a little impulsive. So, occasionally, I said things I was sort of sorry I said, but I think I believed them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That tendency caused her trouble in 1984 when she referred to Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, as something that — quote — "rhymes with rich." Mrs. Bush quickly apologized.

    She remained plainspoken after her husband won the White House for himself in 1988. Right from the start, the new first lady set a new tone, downplaying fashion, for instance, in sharp contrast with her predecessor, Nancy Reagan.

  • Barbara Bush:

    Please notice the hair, the makeup, designer clothes.

    (LAUGHTER)

    (APPLAUSE)

  • Barbara Bush:

    And, remember, you may never see it again.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In 1989, she even wore camouflage gear on a trip to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War to visit with U.S. troops at Thanksgiving.

    Mrs. Bush also made dogs a fixture in the first family's life. Millie, their springer spaniel, had the run of the White House. Millie produced a famous litter of puppies, displayed before the Washington press corps when they were just a few days old.

  • Question:

    Do you really want to keep one?

  • Barbara Bush:

    Well, I haven't — haven't won that battle yet.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In time, Mrs. Bush was inspired to write a bestselling children's work, titled "Millie's Book."

    She reminisced about it in 2012 at the George W. Bush Presidential Library.

  • Barbara Bush:

    And she made over a million dollars for charity. As George says, I worked all my life, got the highest job maybe in the world, and my dog made more money than I did.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Writing her own book was just part of a larger campaign for literacy in America. Barbara Bush took an active role in several literacy organizations, including the one she founded.

  • Barbara Bush:

    Remember, we have a new baby in the house.

    I have now spent more than 25 years promoting family literacy, as I truly believe that being able to read, write and comprehend is one of the Keys to a very successful, happy life, and that a literate society is important to keeping our country safe and strong.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But when it came to her husband's presidency, the first lady turned political fighter. She staunchly defended his failed reelection bid in 1992 in a "NewsHour" interview at the Republican National Convention.

  • Barbara Bush:

    What's the matter with Americans? You're in the best shape of any country in the world. Don't Americans know that when you achieve peace ,it costs money? Peace is costly? We ought to be willing to pay for the fact that we go to bed every single night of our life freer and safer because of George Bush.

    Things are turning, Judy, and they are coming to a strong economy. But we're going to have to all work for it. But it's because we all have peace, and we ought to be darn grateful to George Bush.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Eight years later, she was back campaigning again, this time for her son, George W. Bush, in his 2000 presidential run. Here she was in New Hampshire:

  • Barbara Bush:

    Thank you for all you're doing for my boy.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And in 2016, she campaigned yet again in New Hampshire with another son, Jeb, as he made his ultimately-failed bid for the Republican nomination.

  • Barbara Bush:

    It's great to be back in New Hampshire. The people have good values.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mrs. Bush made one of her last public appearances in March, with her husband and presidential scholars, in College Station, Texas.

    Campaigner, literacy advocate, first lady, mother, and wife, and, as her family described Barbara Bush, their linchpin.

    Barbara Bush was 92 years old.

    In Dallas today, her eldest child, President George W. Bush, opened up about his family's loss. He sat down with the PBS public affairs show "In Principle" hosted by Amy Holmes and Michael Gerson, earlier served as one of the younger President Bush's White House speechwriters.

    Mr. Bush began by discussing his father and how he was mourning.

  • President George W. Bush:

    I'm very appreciative of the outpouring of sympathies, particularly for my dad, you know.

    At age 93, he's going to miss mother. After all, they were married for 73 years. I'm comfortable with her passing because she was comfortable with her passing. And she told me point blank, "I do not fear death. I know there's a loving God."

    And I have told my — our daughters and some of my brothers and sisters, wow, what a beautiful, beautiful lesson.

    I don't want to sound cavalier, but I truly am at peace, and I feel very blessed. And, plus, my mother, I can just hear her saying, get on with your life and do something good.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amy Holmes:

    What advice did your mom give you about being president of the United States?

  • President George W. Bush:

    Keep your eye on the ball, keep your nose to the grindstone. And I told her, that's a hell of a position to be in.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amy Holmes:

    A little awkward?

  • President George W. Bush:

    Yes.

    There was a lot of psychobabble about my relationship with my parents during the presidency, and it's natural, because people haven't had a chance to ask many presidents, what it's like to be president with your father being a former president and mother a former first lady?

    And the most important thing they told me was, "Son, I love you, and we're proud of you," which is the most important thing any parent can tell a child.

  • Amy Holmes:

    So, Mr. President, did you have a chance to say goodbye to your mom?

  • President George W. Bush:

    I did, yes. Laura and I went over and saw her at the hospital. She was doing pretty well, slightly feisty still, which is a good sign.

    And she and I used to kind of needle each other in a friendly way. And then the doctor walked into this hospital room. And mother said, "Do you want to know why George W. is the way he is, Doctor?"

    And the doctor didn't have any choice.

    And mother said, "Because I drank and smoked when I was pregnant with him."

    (LAUGHTER)

  • President George W. Bush:

    So, I knew she was feeling pretty good. And then, a week later, she went downhill. But she chose no — didn't want to have any life-sustaining care. In other words, she was ready to move. And they made her comfortable.

    And I called her yesterday, when I had the sense that she was ready to go. She couldn't talk back, but I told her how much I loved her. And my brothers and sisters did the same thing.

    And then she was by dad's side. Interestingly enough, he sat there for, you know, four or five hours, I'm told, and a preacher came in and read the Bible, and my brother Neil read mom's memoirs.

  • Amy Holmes:

    Oh, wow.

  • President George W. Bush:

    So, it's a sweet scene, when you think about it.

  • Michael Gerson:

    That is sweet.

  • President George W. Bush:

    And, yes, she had a very fortunate life and a very fortunate end in many ways.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you can watch the full interview Friday night at 8:30 on the PBS program "In Principle."

    And in a statement, the elder President Bush said — quote — "I always knew Barbara was the most beloved woman in the world. And, in fact, I used to tease her that I had a complex about that fact. We have faith that she is in heaven, and we know life will go on, as she would have it. So, cross the Bushes off your worry list."

    And now for a deeper look at the former first lady's life, I'm joined by C. Boyden Gray, who was White House counsel to President George H.W. Bush and remains a close personal friend to the Bush family, the Reverend Bonnie Steinroeder, who served as the pastor at the church in Kennebunkport that the Bush family attended during their summers in Maine, and Susan Page, White House bureau chief for USA Today and the author of the upcoming book "The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty," which will be out next year.

    And thank you, all three, for joining us. We do appreciate it.

    Boyden Gray, I'm going to start with you.

    It's so remarkable to me. We just heard both Presidents Bush, comment from them, one, saying, we are comfortable with this. She was comfortable with her passing. We heard President H.W. Bush say, cross the Bushes off your worry list.

    That tells you a lot about her and about her family, doesn't it?

  • C. Boyden Gray:

    It says a great deal.

    She went out the way she lived her life. She did it her way. She did it honestly. She did it straightforwardly. It was a great way, a dignified way to go.

    And those of us who worked with them feel so lucky to have been exposed to such — to such love and strength.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Susan, you have been working on this book, which we mentioned, about Barbara Bush that's coming out next year.

    And I was struck. One of the things you said — well, you said you have been struck by how she was often misperceived, underestimated by people. What did you mean by that?

  • Susan Page:

    Well, one of the reasons I thought she deserved a biography is that people had, I think, a perception of her as a warm grandmother and a very soft — the national grandmother with the white hair and the big pearls.

    And that's true that she's a warm grandmother, but she was also pretty sharp. She had great political instincts. She didn't hesitate to express herself and her opinions to her husband and her sons. And I think she was influential in the White House in a way that people perhaps didn't understand.

    It's not that she took over health care, like Hillary Clinton. But she was a voice in the ear of her husband and her son on what mattered, on what to focus on, and on who to trust. She could spot a phony a mile away.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Pastor Steinroeder, you met the Bushes when you were — you had just begun, I think, working at the church in Kennebunkport. And you said — it was right after 9/11, and you said Mrs. Bush came over to you, made a point of coming over to you. Talk about that, about her.

  • Rev. Bonnie Steinroeder:

    Well, so, it was a Sunday after 9/11.

    I had been scheduled to give my call sermon at the church, where I would preach. Everybody would vote on me; 9/11 happened on that Tuesday, so I ripped up my sermon. I showed up, my first time in this church. I was so nervous.

    I look out in the pews, and there is the president's parents, you know, President George Bush, Barbara Bush. So, I don't remember what I said. I just preached the best I could.

    And, afterwards, she came up to me and she hugged me, and she said, "Your words so comforted me. I'm so glad you're our new pastor."

    And what I realized in that moment, it wasn't me who had comforted her. She was comforting me. And I feel like that set the tone for our whole relationship.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you have told us that you went on to have a great friendship with them.

    Boyden Gray, I want to come back to you. There are so many parts of her life that are really interesting. I want to go back to what Susan was saying about Barbara Bush's influence in the White House on her husband. How did you see that?

  • C. Boyden Gray:

    Well, she was on top of everything. She didn't get involved, as Susan said, in individual policies, except very, very rarely.

    But she knew everything. She was politically very, very astute. And if she thought staff wasn't serving her husband well, or that somebody was cutting corners, she would let it be known, quietly, but strongly.

    And no one ever messed around when she was watching. So, she was an enormous watchdog for him, and she was an enormous tower of strength. She never flinched. She never blinked. And she always supported him to the fullest. It was a remarkable partnership that they had.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Susan, how would you — what's an example of that?

    And I also want to ask you about — you talked to us about the difficult, the painful times that she went through, and, often, we didn't have any idea that that was going on.

  • Susan Page:

    You know, it's true. She is — came from a very exalted lineage. She had a direct ancestor who came over on the Mayflower. She's a distant cousin to the 14th president, Franklin Pierce.

    And, of course, she had lived a life of privilege and position. But she had the grief and pain that people have in their lives. She lost a daughter to leukemia. She had a battle with depression in 1975. She told me she contemplated suicide at that time.

    She was diagnosed with Graves' disease soon after becoming first lady. That was something that caused her great difficulty up to the — forever, until the end of her life, but in ways that she never — you know, she never complained. At least she never complained in public.

    She was very — she was stoic. And she told me that the struggle with depression, for instance, gave her…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Which a lot of people weren't aware of.

  • Susan Page:

    Weren't aware of. She disclosed it in her memoirs. People didn't know about it at the time.

    Her struggle with depression gave her an empathy with people who were having trouble, and that she had previously thought, just work your way out of it, just power through. And she came to learn that you really need sometimes to seek help. And she said she wished at that point she had done that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Pastor Steinroeder, you saw that in her, didn't you?

  • Rev. Bonnie Steinroeder:

    I totally saw that in her.

    When Susan was saying in the beginning that people kind of misunderstood her, she was — yes, she was strong and smart and kind and funny, and all of those things. And I received her love.

    I also was scolded by her more than one time. And she just had the biggest heart and was a very compassionate and generous person.

    And I just want to add, you know, a lot of people will help you if you go and ask. Barbara Bush never waited to be asked. She looked around to see where the need was, and then she stepped into that need to help other people, which is one thing that for me made her so unique and special.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Pastor Steinroeder, I want to stay with you for just a moment, because one of the things you talked to us about was how you — at some point, they invited you to many events at their home in Kennebunkport, and often you were the only Democrat there, or there would be Democrats with Republicans.

    How did you observe the partisanship around them?

  • Rev. Bonnie Steinroeder:

    They were the most non — I know it sounds funny to say. They were the most nonpartisan people I have ever met.

    I mean, they knew that I was a Democrat. They never brought it up. They were friends with everybody. Their events were people like Olympia Snowe, former senator of Maine, what I took to be some fund-raisers and my husband and I. But everyone got along.

    And, again, they were just so generous in spirit. And, as their pastor, I can say, they took very seriously their Christian calling to help their neighbor, to love their neighbor as themselves. And their neighbor didn't have red or blue or man or woman or whatever station you were in life. They picked their friends. They helped people because they were loving and they cared.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Boyden Gray, I want to you pick up on that, because those values carried over to what — to the Bush presidency, to their — not only their four years in the White House when he was president, but the time as vice president, their time throughout their lives in public service.

  • C. Boyden Gray:

    Well, they were incredibly generous with their time and their attention.

    And they helped everybody in the family, in their family, everybody who worked with them, for them, in every way they could. It was — the role model that they set was extraordinary. And I just hope that we can maintain this, and using her life as an example and 41's example.

    Extraordinary couple, and — but, at the same time, very warm and very loving. And they — you know, as a personal matter, they helped me raise my daughter, and I'm very grateful for that.

    One sort of anecdote. When my daughter was graduated — was graduating from high school, she wrote President Bush and said, would you come and speak at my graduation? And he immediately replied yes.

    And then Barbara stepped in and said, "No, George, you can't do that. You refused to do any of your grandchildren's graduations, because you will do that for the rest of your life and do nothing else. So you can't do it for Eliza."

    And — but that was — but the thought remained, and that was what was important.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Susan, on this whole business of how open they were to both political parties, and yet there was tension with this president, wasn't there?

  • Susan Page:

    Yes.

    Well, you know, Barbara Bush was a fierce defender of her family, of — against any critics of her husband or of her son, either son, all of her sons.

    But when Donald Trump was so caustic toward Jeb Bush during the 2016 primaries, I think she found that very difficult to take, and she made it clear she didn't like that.

    And she expressed concerns to me in interviews in recent months about the direction of the party that she's been part of for so long. And I think one reason we see such a big outpouring today is, I think other Americans think, are we headed in the right direction? Can we revive some of the civility that marked the Bushes?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we should note that Mrs. Trump, Melania Trump, the first lady, is going to the services. But it's our understanding that President Trump is not attending. Is that correct?

  • Susan Page:

    Well, I know that she's accepted, and he has not yet.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Has not yet, so we don't know whether he is or not.

    Pastor Steinroeder, you spoke, you touched on this a minute ago, her strong faith. That was clearly a huge part of her life, I mean, from what you were telling us.

  • Rev. Bonnie Steinroeder:

    It was a huge part of her life and of President Bush's life as well.

    And you could see it through everything. You could see it in their relationship. You could see it in the motivation that they felt to help other people, to be good people, to be kind, to be generous. We talked about faith quite a bit.

    But she was never heavy-handed about her faith, because she was — I don't know if people realize, but my experience of her is, she was also very private in many ways. So she was very clear about her faith. She would help anybody, but she never tried to force her views or her beliefs on anybody else.

    And I do think that's probably what helped her at the end of her life to have that sense of peace, because we had talked a long, long time ago about her beliefs that she knew she would be reunited with the people she loved who had gone before her.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Boyden Gray, you were in touch with the family. You — in the past, you have been very close to them. But you have been getting regular reports in the last few weeks.

    How did she approach the end?

  • C. Boyden Gray:

    Well, the same way she did life.

    As I said earlier, she wanted to go out with the dignity that she always lived with and always exhibited. And she didn't want to be felt sorry for. She wanted to go out with the kind of grace that exemplified her life. And she did it.

    And it's a great example. And it's something that I hope all Americans look at, because this is the way — this is the way to finish off a fabulous, fabulous life.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And her sons were saying keeping her humor until the very end.

  • C. Boyden Gray:

    The very end.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well…

  • C. Boyden Gray:

    Having a bourbon right before she died.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Literally the day or so before.

  • C. Boyden Gray:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it is so wonderful to able to remember such a remarkable woman.

    Boyden Gray, Susan Page, Pastor Steinroeder, thank you all very, very much.

  • Rev. Bonnie Steinroeder:

    Thank you for having me.

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