A beautiful person, no other way to say it. Barbara Bush was one of a kind, pushing through challenges most lives never see, with a hallmark smile, clear eyes and unwavering faith.
Married to George Herbert Walker Bush in 1945, they tied the knot when George was home on leave. He was flying combat missions in World War II. He would get shot down, rescued, be flying a month later. He named his planes for her. She never stopped believing in him.
Together, they raised six children. Most Americans can name one or two of them. But their second was Robin, who died of leukemia, a disease they had never heard of. She died at 3.
From a chapter titled “Robin” in Mrs. Bush’s memoir, one reads gratitude, along with loss. “We believed in God,” she wrote. She includes a poem. The first line: “So I am glad not that my loved one has gone, but that the earth she laughed and lived on was my earth, too.”
That poem ends with equal parts courage, confidence and faith. “Tears over her departure? Nay, a smile. That I had walked with her a little while.” And then their life went on.
For 12 years in the spotlight, eight as wife of Vice President George H.W. Bush, four as America’s First Lady, Barbara Bush was self-assured and self-effacing, discrete, replete with humor, wit and wisdom.
She modeled love and motherhood, put her arms around America’s children as her own, became the nation’s champion for “family literacy,” clear-eyed in her belief that much of what ails America would not — if all parents could read, and then paused to teach their children.
Before George Bush became Ronald Reagan’s vice president, then his worthy successor, Barbara Bush and her family modeled a life of service. Not all happy endings, it was their shared purpose in life.
Just back from World War II, her young husband went into business. He made it. Then he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1964, got viciously attacked, and lost by 13 points. No matter, she loved him.
He ran for Congress, and this time he won. In 1970, her patriot ran again for the U.S. Senate, and again he lost. Ironically, he lost to Lloyd Bentsen, Texas Democrat, who would later become vice presidential running mate for Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. That ticket would lose handily to George Herbert Walker Bush and Dan Quayle, in 1988.
But in 1970, the margin of loss was large, seven points, another emotional hit. Barbara maintained her smile, clarity and unwavering faith. With her at his side, George became a United Nations ambassador, then chairman of the Republican National Committee. When Richard Nixon faced Watergate and resigned, their life went on.
Just a year later, George Bush became U.S. liaison to the People’s Republic to China, forerunner to the rank of ambassador. Intrepid, trusting in people, Barbara Bush rode her bicycle around Mao’s Communist China, smiling come what may.
In time, her husband became director of the CIA, no Sunday picnic for a wife. In 1980, before Ronald Reagan chose him as running mate, putting them on a trajectory for big things, the primary battle was fierce, roiled and ready. Mrs. Bush was cool, tough and steady.
My favorite story, heard as a young White House staffer when her husband was vice president, comes from one evening when Barbara and George attended a dinner at the Soviet embassy. Although never corroborated, I fully believe it.
As relayed the next day, Vice President and Mrs. Bush arrived in place of the President and Mrs. Reagan. U.S.-Soviet tensions were running high. The dinner was hosted by Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin.
Mr. Dobrynin was a cagey fellow. He spoke flawless English when it suited, but broken English when that prompted others to fill in his blanks, or masked greater meaning. Remarkably, he served as Soviet ambassador to the United States for 24 years (1962-1986).
On the night in question, this Soviet ambassador — veteran of six presidents, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan — met his match, in Barbara Bush.
Once seated, the Russian proclivity for loquacious toasts began. The ambassador aimed to deliver a message. U.S.-Soviet relations were at a nadir, Mr. Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative at its apex. The ambassador would score points off the vice president.
The first lady was on her guard. The ambassador’s glass got raised. Leaning on broken English this evening, he intoned with some deliberation, mixing idioms with precision, bartender of well-stirred words.
Concluding the Soviet toast, he turned to the vice president and said, as if by mistake, “So Mr. Vice President, I say up your bottom!” The toast is “Bottoms up.”
Barbara Bush did not miss a beat. Before the vice president could lift his glass, his witty wife — sagacious as gracious — lifted hers. She smiled back at the Soviet ambassador, and said, “Mr. Ambassador, thank you up yours!” Clear eyes, always smiling.
Whether true or not, the story fits. Barbara Bush, who left college to love and live, marry and raise a big, wonderful family, could match wits with anyone. And did.
In time, she founded her life-changing national literacy foundation, became a loving grandmother and great-grandmother. She kept keen her humor, poise and peace, shared her heart in books and giving. She modeled humility, loyalty and what it means to live long and prosper, to fight St. Paul’s good fight, and to live as a light.
Somehow, I imagine that there is homecoming afoot, a mother and her little girl, a time for peace as much as reflection, joy as much as loss, faith as much as a life well-lived. And Barbara Bush, America’s grandmother, would want it that way.
She would remind us: “Tears over her departure? Nay, a smile. That I had walked with her a little while.” Godspeed. You taught us much. If only now we can remember.
• Robert B. Charles served as assistant secretary of State under George W. Bush, and served in the White Houses of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.