Grit, grace, brains and beauty: Barbara Bush

Generations: Melania Trump was 18 years old and working as a model when Bush became first lady.

Are presidents less important than their first ladies? Wife to one president, mother to another — Barbara Bush was “the enforcer” behind a political dynasty. She died on Tuesday aged 92.

“I don’t care if you are the president of the United States, get your feet off my coffee table!” When George W. Bush went to visit his mother Barbara, there was no doubt who was boss.

As only the second woman to have both a husband and son become US president, Barbara Bush was the life-force of a towering political family. And as news of her death broke on Tuesday evening, tributes flooded in from all sides.

Barack and Michelle Obama, praised her “humility and decency that reflects the very best of the American spirit”. While President Donald Trump described her as an “advocate of the American family”.

As wife to President George H.W. Bush, she was one of the most popular first ladies ever, charming the public with her straight talk, sharp wit and self-deprecating manner.

This reputation lasted into her later years. For example, when asked if her second son Jeb would be president in 2016, she replied: “We’ve had enough Bushes.”

Beyond her family she was a passionate campaigner in her own right. She championed civil rights and held tolerant views on abortion (unlike many Republicans of her generation).

She was best known for her fight to eradicate illiteracy, declaring that “if more people could read, write, and comprehend, we could be much closer to solving many other problems our country faces”.

This determination to solve big social issues can be traced to other first ladies, whose causes reflect their own turbulent times.

For example, Michelle Obama campaigned to end childhood obesity and openly supported gay marriage. The current first lady, Melania Trump, has vowed to tackle cyber bulling.

This expectation of first ladies to campaign for public causes largely began with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Serving from 1933 to 1945, she fought for civil rights in an era of severe racial segregation, and even helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — becoming known as “first lady of the world”.

Are first ladies more important than their presidents?


It’s possible, some argue. Presidents are extremely detached, devoted to remote foreign policy issues and party politics. Not only do first ladies tackle issues directly affecting ordinary people, they come to symbolise everyday virtues we can all aspire to: from tolerance to social awareness. This can be far more influential than cold hard presidential power.

Not so fast, others respond. They can actually have quite limited power. For example, Barbara Bush could not fully voice her support for abortion as it would have compromised the political position of her husband. While first ladies certainly have influence, this is ultimately drawn from the president they are married to.

You Decide

  1. Can a first lady be more powerful than the president?
  2. Will there ever be a first husband?


  1. First ladies often campaign against big problems facing their society. If you could tackle one issue what would it be and why? How would your campaign work? Can you come up with a catchy slogan for your campaign?
  2. Using the resources under Become An Expert, research the history of first ladies. Which one would you consider the greatest? What special attributes did they have? Were they more important than the president they were married to?

Some People Say...

“The most important yardstick of your success will be how you treat other people.”

Barbara Bush

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Barbara Bush died on April 17, aged 92. Her and George H.W Bush celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary in January, making them the longest married couple in presidential history. She was popular with the public — a 1999 poll finding that 63% of Americans had a favourable opinion of her, compared with 3% who held an unfavourable view.
What do we not know?
It is impossible to know the precise political influence Bush had during her time as first lady, however anecdotal evidence helps build a general picture. For example, Time reported that she “nudged” her husband into spending more federal money on fighting AIDs, and convinced him to make homelessness and education key campaign policies.

Word Watch

Her husband, George H.W. Bush, was president from 1989 to 1993. Their son, George W. Bush, was president for two terms from 2001 to 2009.
President Donald Trump
Bush was less complimentary about Trump. During the 2016 election she criticised him for saying “terrible things about women”.
Being humorously critical about oneself.
She did go on to support Jeb during his subsequent campaign, however he lost the Republican primary to Donald Trump.
Civil rights
For more on this, follow the Time link under Become An Expert.
Eleanor Roosevelt
Her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was president from 1933 to 1945.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Drafted and adopted by the United Nations. Although it is not legally binding for member states, it has informed many international treaties, laws and national constitutions.

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