HOUSTON — Barbara Bush, the snowy-haired first lady whose plainspoken manner and utter lack of pretense made her more popular at times than her husband, President George H.W. Bush, died Tuesday, a family spokesman said. She was 92.
Mrs. Bush brought a grandmotherly style to buttoned-down Washington, often appearing in her trademark fake pearl chokers and displaying no vanity about her white hair and wrinkles.
"What you see with me is what you get. I'm not running for president — George Bush is," she said at the 1988 Republican National Convention, where her husband, then vice president, was nominated to succeed Ronald Reagan.
The Bushes, who were married Jan. 6, 1945, had the longest marriage of any presidential couple in American history. And Mrs. Bush was one of only two first ladies who had a child who was elected president. The other was Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams and mother of John Quincy Adams.
"I had the best job in America," she wrote in a 1994 memoir describing her time in the White House. "Every single day was interesting, rewarding, and sometimes just plain fun."
On Sunday, family spokesman Jim McGrath said the former first lady had decided to decline further medical treatment for health problems and focus instead on "comfort care" at home in Houston. She had been in the hospital recently for congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In 2009, she had heart valve replacement surgery and had a long history of treatment for Graves' disease, a thyroid condition.
"My dear mother has passed on at age 92. Laura, Barbara, Jenna, and I are sad, but our souls are settled because we know hers was," George W. Bush said in a statement Tuesday. "Barbara Bush was a fabulous First Lady and a woman unlike any other who brought levity, love, and literacy to millions. To us, she was so much more. Mom kept us on our toes and kept us laughing until the end. I'm a lucky man that Barbara Bush was my mother. Our family will miss her dearly, and we thank you all for your prayers and good wishes."
Funeral arrangements weren't immediately released.
The publisher's daughter and oilman's wife could be caustic in private, but her public image was that of a self-sacrificing, supportive spouse who referred to her husband as her "hero."
In the White House, "you need a friend, someone who loves you, who's going to say, 'You are great,'" Mrs. Bush said in a 1992 television interview.
Her uncoiffed, matronly appearance often provoked jokes that she looked more like the boyish president's mother than his wife. Late-night comedians quipped that her bright white hair and pale features also imparted a resemblance to George Washington.
Eight years after leaving the nation's capital, Mrs. Bush stood with her husband as their son George W. was sworn in as president. They returned four years later when he won a second term. Unlike Mrs. Bush, Abigail Adams did not live to see her son's inauguration. She died in 1818, six years before John Quincy Adams was elected.
Mrs. Bush insisted she did not try to influence her husband's politics.
"I don't fool around with his office," she said, "and he doesn't fool around with my household."
In 1984, her quick wit got her into trouble when she was quoted as referring to Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, as "that $4 million — I can't say it, but it rhymes with rich."
"It was dumb of me. I shouldn't have said it," Mrs. Bush acknowledged in 1988. "It was not attractive, and I've been very shamed. I apologized to Mrs. Ferraro, and I would apologize again."
Daughter-in-law Laura Bush, wife of the 43rd president, said Mrs. Bush was "ferociously tart-tongued."
"She's never shied away from saying what she thinks. ... She's managed to insult nearly all of my friends with one or another perfectly timed acerbic comment," Laura Bush wrote in her 2010 book, "Spoken from the Heart."
In her 1994 autobiography, "Barbara Bush: A Memoir," Mrs. Bush said she did her best to keep her opinions from the public while her husband was in office. But she revealed that she disagreed with him on two issues: She supported legal abortion and opposed the sale of assault weapons.
"I honestly felt, and still feel, the elected person's opinion is the one the public has the right to know," Mrs. Bush wrote.
She also disclosed a bout with depression in the mid-1970s, saying she sometimes feared she would deliberately crash her car. She blamed hormonal changes and stress.
"Night after night, George held me weeping in his arms while I tried to explain my feelings," she wrote. "I almost wonder why he didn't leave me."
She said she snapped out of it in a few months.
Mrs. Bush raised five children: George W., Jeb, Neil, Marvin and Dorothy. A sixth child, 3-year-old daughter Robin, died of leukemia in 1953.
In a speech in 1985, she recalled the stress of raising a family while married to a man whose ambitions carried him from the Texas oil fields to Congress and into influential political positions that included ambassador to the United Nations, GOP chairman and CIA director.
"This was a period, for me, of long days and short years," she said, "of diapers, runny noses, earaches, more Little League games than you could believe possible, tonsils and those unscheduled races to the hospital emergency room, Sunday school and church, of hours of urging homework or short chubby arms around your neck and sticky kisses."
Along the way, she said, there were also "bumpy moments — not many, but a few — of feeling that I'd never, ever be able to have fun again and coping with the feeling that George Bush, in his excitement of starting a small company and traveling around the world, was having a lot of fun."
In 2003, she wrote a follow-up memoir, "Reflections: Life After the White House."
"I made no apologies for the fact that I still live a life of ease," she wrote. "There is a difference between ease and leisure. I live the former and not the latter."
Along with her memoirs, she wrote "C. Fred's Story" and "Millie's Book," based on the lives of her dogs. Proceeds from the books benefited adult and family literacy programs. Laura Bush, a former teacher with a master's degree in library science, continued her mother-in-law's literacy campaign in the White House.
The 43rd president was not the only Bush son to seek office in the 1990s. In 1994, when George W. was elected governor of Texas, son Jeb narrowly lost to incumbent Lawton Chiles in Florida. Four years later, Jeb was victorious in his second try in Florida.
"This is a testament to what wonderful parents they are," George W. Bush said as Jeb Bush was sworn into office. He won a second term in 2002, and then made an unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Sons Marvin and Neil both became businessmen. Neil achieved some notoriety in the 1980s as a director of a savings and loan that crashed. Daughter Dorothy, or Doro, has preferred to stay out of the spotlight. She married lobbyist Robert Koch, a Democrat, in 1992.
In a collection of letters published in 1999, George H.W. Bush included a note he gave to his wife in early 1994.
"You have given me joy that few men know," he wrote. "You have made our boys into men by bawling them out and then, right away, by loving them. You have helped Doro to be the sweetest, greatest daughter in the whole wide world. I have climbed perhaps the highest mountain in the world, but even that cannot hold a candle to being Barbara's husband."
Mrs. Bush was born Barbara Pierce in Rye, New York. Her father was the publisher of McCall's and Redbook magazines. After attending Smith College for two years, she married young naval aviator George Herbert Walker Bush. She was 19.
After World War II, the Bushes moved to the Texas oil patch to seek their fortune and raise a family. It was there that Bush began his political career, representing Houston for two terms in Congress in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In all, the Bushes made more than two dozen moves that circled half the globe before landing at the White House in 1989. Opinion polls taken over the next four years often showed her approval ratings higher than her husband's.
The couple's final move, after Bush lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton, was to Houston, where they built what she termed their "dream house" in an affluent neighborhood. The Bush family also had an oceanfront summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine.
After retiring to Houston, the Bushes helped raise funds for charities and appeared frequently at events such as Houston Astros baseball games. Public schools in the Houston area are named for both of them.
In 1990, Barbara Bush gave the commencement address at all-women Wellesley College. Some had protested her selection because she was prominent only through the achievements of her husband. Her speech that day was rated by a survey of scholars in 1999 as one of the top 100 speeches of the century.
"Cherish your human connections," Mrs. Bush told graduates. "At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent."
Reaction to the death of former first lady Barbara Bush
Here is some reaction to the death of former first lady Barbara Bush, whom a family spokesman says died Tuesday:
- “My dear mother has passed on at age 92. Laura, Barbara, Jenna, and I are sad, but our souls are settled because we know hers was. Barbara Bush was a fabulous First Lady and a woman unlike any other who brought levity, love, and literacy to millions. To us, she was so much more. Mom kept us on our toes and kept us laughing until the end. I’m a lucky man that Barbara Bush was my mother. Our family will miss her dearly, and we thank you all for your prayers and good wishes.” — Statement from her son, former President George W. Bush
- “Columba and I join every member of the Bush family in offering our sincere gratitude for the outpouring of love and support for my Mom in recent days, and throughout her remarkable life. I’m exceptionally privileged to be the son of George Bush and the exceptionally gracious, gregarious, fun, funny, loving, tough, smart, graceful woman who was the force of nature known as Barbara Bush. Thank you for your prayers, and we look forward to celebrating and honoring her life and contributions to our family and great nation in the coming days.” — Statement from her son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
- “President Donald J. Trump and first lady Melania Trump join the nation in celebrating the life of Barbara Bush. As a wife, mother, grandmother, military spouse and former first lady, Mrs. Bush was an advocate of the American family. Amongst her greatest achievements was recognizing the importance of literacy as a fundamental family value that requires nurturing and protection. She will be long remembered for her strong devotion to country and family, both of which she served unfailingly well. The president and first lady’s thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Mrs. Bush.” — Statement from President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump
- “Barbara Bush was a remarkable woman. She had grit and grace, brains and beauty. She was fierce and feisty in support of her family and friends, her country and her causes. She showed us what an honest, vibrant, full life looks like. Hillary and I mourn her passing and bless her memory. We will never forget the courtesy and kindness she and President Bush showed us, starting when I was governor in 1983. I’ll always treasure my summer visits to Kennebunkport. Barbara joked that George and I spent so much time together I had become almost a member of the family, the ‘black sheep’ that had gone astray. Our hearts and prayers go out to President Bush; to George, Jeb, Neil, Marvin, Doro, and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and to the entire Bush family she loved so much. We know that through them her remarkable strength, warmth and wit, and her devotion to our country will live on.” — Statement from former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
- “Barbara Bush was the rock of a family dedicated to public service, and our thoughts and prayers are with both Presidents Bush and the entire Bush family tonight. We’ll always be grateful to Mrs. Bush for the generosity she showed to us throughout our time in the White House, but we’re even more grateful for the way she lived her life — as a testament to the fact that public service is an important and noble calling; as an example of the humility and decency that reflects the very best of the American spirit. She’ll be remembered for passing those American values on to her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren — and to the countless citizens whom she and George inspired to become ‘points of light’ in service to others.” — Statement from former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama
- “With the passing of Barbara Bush, our country has lost one of its most beloved and gracious citizens. I always enjoyed being with Barbara and hearing her opinions, which she was never reluctant to share. She was a wise and thoughtful woman, and Marilyn and I will miss her. Our hearts are full of sympathy and love for our dear friend President Bush in this sad hour.” — Statement from former Vice President Dan Quayle
- “Rosalynn and I are saddened by the death of Barbara Bush. She touched the hearts of millions with her warmth, generosity, and keen wit. The matriarch of a family dedicated to serving, she urged volunteerism as a way for all citizens to participate in our nation’s progress. Through her own work to promote literacy as a value in every American home, countless families now have the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in all aspects of their lives. She will be missed.” — Statement from former President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter
- “Barbara Bush dedicated her life to helping others. As only the second woman in history to be both the wife and mother of U.S. presidents, Barbara had a unique and profound impact on our country. Spearheading the fight against illiteracy, she created the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, working to improve the lives of those less fortunate through education. Her selfless devotion to service defines the inspiring legacy Barbara has left behind. Her impact on Texas and our nation will forever be treasured. Cecilia and I extend our deepest condolences to President George H.W. Bush and the entire Bush family during this difficult time. We ask that all Texans join us in keeping them in their thoughts and prayers as they mourn the passing of a devoted wife, mother, and public servant.” — Statement from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott
- “Mrs. Bush was a ‘no nonsense’ devoted mother to her family, and our nation. She was wit, wisdom, honesty, and character on two feet. She inspired a ‘thousand points of light’ of service to our country and was a beacon to us all. We loved her for who she was and for what we became because of her example. Our hearts go out to her remarkable family and to all who loved her as we did. The world is a poorer placer without Barbara Bush.” — Statement from Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of former President Lyndon B. Johnson
- “When I think of Barbara Bush, I smile. Her candor was always refreshing, her grace was endless, her love of family never wavered, and she was always a true patriot. My family has been fortunate to know her and we will always be grateful for her service to our country. I share her commitment to reading and literacy which will be a large part of her legacy.” — Statement from Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of former President Lyndon B. Johnson