Barbara Bush, keeper of family values, showed us all how to live well

Barbara Bush, keeper of family values, showed us all how to live well
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With the passing of former first lady Barbara Bush, the Bush family lost its matriarch, the nation lost one of its most celebrated citizens, and the world lost an iconic leader whose faith, strength and patriotism were an inspiration to millions.

The litany of public accolades bestowed upon her as she sought comfort care in her final days, and then after her death, reflect the admiration of so many people. She will lay in repose at St. Martin’s Church in Houston for the public to pay respects on Friday; several former presidents and first ladies will attend a private service on Saturday.  

In her family, Mrs. Bush was known as “The Enforcer,” an affectionate nickname and tribute to her role as keeper of the family’s values and way of living, which she nurtured and enforced with the unique blend of toughness and gentleness that was her trademark.


Hers is no ordinary family. She was only the second woman to have a husband and son serve as president of the United States. Yet the service of her progeny to the nation goes far beyond the two presidents. Among her descendants are a former governor of the country’s third-largest state, the commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, and the chair of the Points of Light foundation.

At 92, she was the nation’s oldest living first lady.

My own encounters with Barbara Bush began when her relationship to the Reagan team, whom I served, was still adversarial. As she aggressively campaigned for her husband’s quest for the 1980 Republican nomination for president, I knew that we were up against somebody truly formidable. In many ways she defined the Bush campaign.

When Ronald Reagan asked George H.W. Bush to be his running mate and a team was formed, it was always a special pleasure to be detailed to one of her events. Every encounter, no matter how brief, resulted in a handwritten note on one of her 4-by-6 cards. She was incredibly gracious, never failing to say “thank you” to those who served her.

Although she was born to privilege, her life was not always easy. Their daughter, Robin, became ill with leukemia at age 3, and after losing Robin to the disease, Mrs. Bush worked tirelessly to fight leukemia. The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in her second home of Maine stands as a tribute to her work. “Long after I am gone,” she said, “this hospital will be there with my name.”

So will schools in Texas and Arizona. The Barbara Bush Library memorializes her dogged fight to promote literacy, a campaign she pursued with the same determination that she gave to every political race. The Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation notes that she was “a tireless advocate of volunteerism,” who helped charitable and humanitarian causes throughout her life.

Barbara Bush’s commencement address at Wellesley College in 1990 is ranked among the top 50 by American Rhetoric’s Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century. She summarized her advice to the graduating class: “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.”

Her marriage to the 41st president of the United States lasted more than 73 years. Fittingly, she died holding the hand of the man she’d met when she was just 16. Her children and grandchildren call her blessed, and her husband praised her.  

By her own reckoning, or anyone else’s, Barbara Bush’s was a life exceptionally well lived. Rest in peace, Mrs. Bush. May perpetual light shine upon you.

Charlie Gerow, CEO of Quantum Communications and one of Pennsylvania’s most influential Republicans, is a nationally recognized leader in strategic communications and trusted advisor to leaders in government and business.