Arts & Culture

Julia Reed Remembers Barbara Bush

The author on the iconic former First Lady and her lasting legacy

Photo: Jody Horton

President George H. W. and Barbara Bush, photographed at their Houston townhouse on November 14, 2011.

I met Barbara Bush in the spring of 1989 when I went to the White House to interview her for Vogue. The magazine had a long history of running formal portraits of new First Ladies in their inaugural gowns. It should have been a simple task to line up Mrs. Bush (we were hardly in the business of take-down pieces), but she was the hardest-to-get interview of any subject during my twenty years at the magazine. Not interested in posing in her sapphire-blue Scaasi gown, she was intent on distancing herself from her far more extravagant predecessor, Nancy Reagan, who felt right at home on the magazine’s pages. After months of cajoling (I’d made the first request the week after the November election), she finally relented, and thus was born a new Vogue First Lady tradition, that of a substantive profile and relaxed photograph.

The interview, however, was far from relaxed. Right off the bat, I saw why her own family referred to “America’s Grandmother” as “The Enforcer.” She was edgy and a tiny bit defensive; she reminded me, for example, that she had held “AIDS babies” long before Princess Diana became famous for the same acts of kindness. It was true. As wife of the vice president, she fought to destigmatize the disease and championed other causes not all that dear to her party’s heart—visiting homeless shelters, encouraging people to volunteer at Head Start. Not long before our interview, when fear and ignorance about AIDS still abounded, she’d made a visit to Grandma’s House, a D.C. home for abandoned or abused infants infected with human immunodeficiency virus. While cameras rolled, Mrs. Bush cradled and kissed one child after another and hugged a stricken adult. “You can hug and pick up AIDS babies and people who have the HIV virus” without fear of infection, she said. “There is a need for compassion.”

Before our interview, she hadn’t realized she “knew” me. In the 1988 election, my father had helped deliver Mississippi to her husband by a whopping margin. The friendship between the two went as least as far back as the president’s stint as Republican National Committee chairman and as vice president, Bush had visited my hometown—with Mrs. Bush in tow. After she realized she was “among friends” she relaxed a little, but in the end announced she only had five minutes for a photograph. Panic ensued. Vogue is a visual medium, after all, and Andre Leon Talley, the magazine’s then editor-at-large, and Arthur Elgort, the great fashion photographer, had been charged with getting at least two portraits. Arthur pointed and clicked as she began to walk down the hall, trailed by her beloved Springer Spaniel, Millie. Andre ran ahead (himself trailed by nervous Secret Service), threw open the doors of the Truman balcony, and lured Mrs. Bush into a wicker chair. Wearing a blue silk-print Scaasi dress and her trademark triple strand of Kenneth Jay Lane pearls, she smiled for Arthur with Millie in her lap. What we got was a gorgeous photograph, one in which the abundant warmth and generosity of spirit that I grew to learn was her true self was on sparkling display. (The caption below the photo read, “The dress is a Scaasi but the pearls, she assures, are fake.”)

Jody Horton

More than two decades later later I had a much easier task when I convinced Mrs. Bush and President Bush to pose for Garden & Gun. They liked the photo so much they used it for their Christmas card. In the years between, I came to love and admire Mrs. Bush enormously. In 2009, it was my great honor to be asked to read at A Celebration of Reading, an annual Houston benefit for the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, for which she raised more than $100 million and donated the $800,000-plus proceeds from Millie’s BookIt was the twentieth anniversary of the event, and fourteen of her grandchildren flew in from all over the country to surprise “Ganny.” When they emerged from the wings, tears rolled down her face, “an unusual sight,” as my fellow author Christopher Buckley noted at the time. While her husband is a virtual faucet of tears, Mrs. Bush retained at least some of her Connecticut stoicism. But that night both Bushes were filled with emotion. “To see them, surrounded by their children and grandchildren,” Buckley said, “is to be present at a kind of Platonic family ideal: love abundant, unconditional, joyous.”

In the year preceding the event, Mrs. Bush had endured three major surgeries, one of them for a life-threatening perforated ulcer and another to have a heart valve replaced with one from a pig (which she characteristically joked about from the stage). Yet she seemed in paradoxically robust health, piling the authors (who also included Cherie Blair and Jon Meacham), daughter Doro, grandchildren, and a handful of major donors onto a bus for the hour-and-forty-five-minute ride to the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station. For practically the entire trip, she roamed up and down the aisle, visiting with everyone, laughing and joking, making each passenger feel part of a very lucky group indeed. At the library, I stood next to Doro as we listened to a recording of Mrs. Bush reading her husband’s remarkable and remarkably moving letter to his mother a year or so after their first-born daughter Robin died of leukemia. As we listened to Mrs. Bush’s disembodied voice, Doro and I stood silently, tears rolling down both our faces. Among the letter’s lines was “we need a girl” and Doro had been born not long afterward. At the hospital on that happy occasion, a friend of the president had seen him, his faced pressed against the Plexiglas window of the natal unit, tears of joy streaming down his own face.

In the Vogue interview she referenced Robin’s awful death and the strength she gained from her family. “My relationship to George, not to mention the children we’ve had, would have made the whole thing worth it if we hadn’t done all these other things,” she said. “We had some financially hard times, contrary to popular belief. We had a child who died. But so do other people. You either make it or you don’t. We were lucky. We believed in God, we loved each other, and we had the most extraordinarily supportive families you’ve ever known.”

Jon Meacham, who wrote a terrific biography of President Bush, also credits her strength—and her candor—in part, at least, to the couple’s move to Texas. (She was at home, in the house the Bushes built in the Tanglewood section of Houston, when she died.) She was barely twenty-three when she and her husband and young George W. made the trek to the wilds of West Texas from the comparatively coddling environs of Greenwich, Connecticut. Mrs. Bush had a distant mother who scared her to death. She met and fell in love with her husband at sixteen—though not at the Round Hill Club, as has been constantly repeated, much to her irritation. (It was at the Greenwich Country Club instead.) It was in Texas, she always said, that she came into her own. “She felt the culture shifting from the Yale Bowl to Friday Night Lights,” says Meacham. “That was the secret of her political success. If you could survive in West Texas, you could survive anywhere.”

When I talked to him for the Vogue story, the late Lee Atwater, her husband’s colorful political advisor who was then chairman of the Republican National Committee, made similar reference to her popularity. “Barbara Bush has become a folk hero in this country. People are tired of bullshit and Barbara Bush is the most natural, down-to-earth person who’s ever held center stage in public life.” Yes, she was. And she will be sorely missed.