She was born into comfort in Manhattan and raised in Rye, a leafy, exclusive suburb in New York’s Westchester County. She would leave college before graduating to marry. She never had a career beyond wife, mother and citizen. But her death, in her 10th decade, evoked an almost spontaneous national yearning for what she and her husband had personified: the endangered values of noblesse oblige, that unwritten but real moral obligation for those born to privilege to act generously and compassionately toward those not so advantaged, an enduring commitment to family, to country and to duty.
According to Kate Andersen Brower, in her book “The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House,” among the permanent White House staff — the butlers, the painters and the engineers — President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush were “by far the favorite.” Not just because the Bushes knew their names and the president played horseshoes with them as equals but because he, according to Secret Service agents and Air Force One pilots, knew their children’s names, as well, and where they were in school.
Marriage was not always easy. At 18 and just having graduated from prep school, George enlisted in the Navy, where he would become that service’s youngest pilot and, in combat against the Japanese, win the Distinguished Flying Cross. They married before the war was over, and Barbara — while becoming the mother of six children, while following her husband to Connecticut and then to Odessa, Texas, and then to California before settling in Midland, Texas (which may not be the end of the world, but you can see it from there) — moved in to 27 different homes in 36 years.
There was about her publicly an almost total absence of vanity. She did not “lunch” with favorite designers. But she could be caustic. She once criticized her husband’s vice presidential rival at the time, Democrat Geraldine Ferraro, for being something that “rhymes with rich.” But she apologized both publicly and privately to Ferraro, which, in the current era of daily presidential invective attacking adversaries as “slimeball,” “lying,” “crooked” and worse, seems almost quaint.
More importantly, when the nation was both uninformed and terrified about the AIDS epidemic then rampant, the first lady taught America to be not fearful but rather compassionate by personally leaving the White House to go to a Washington AIDS hospice, where she was seen holding and comforting infants afflicted with the deadly disease.
Her selection to be the commencement speaker at the all-female Wellesley College provoked criticism from many feminists, who charged that her identity was derivative from her famous husband and she had no independent career. The first lady carried the day with this passage in her speech: “Who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse. And I wish him well.”
Today — when the public debate about presidential character and fitness for national leadership rages — for guidance and answers, we just have to look at the lives of Barbara and George Bush to teach us what character really means and how character informs our lives.