This week the Bush family lost its matriarch and the nation lost the woman many Americans referred to as “our grandmother.”
She died holding the hand of the man she’d met more than three quarters of a century before, and to whom shed been married for 73 years. Her final resting place will be beside her precious daughter whom she lost to leukemia at the age of three.
She was one of only two women to have both a husband and a son serve as President of the United States. She was our oldest living First Lady.
Her life was marked by her trademark graciousness and her tireless efforts to battle childhood diseases like the one that took her daughter’s life and her fight for literacy for all.
Barbara Bush was the consummate First Lady and a woman whose leadership, faith and patriotism inspired millions. Accolades from every corner of the globe flowed on news of her passing. Each was as well deserved as the next.
Yet the Washington Post, as unbelievable as it may seem, couldn’t resist drawing an unflattering comparison to Mrs. Bush’s predecessor, Nancy Reagan. Comparisons are always odious, but especially so when tucked inside an obituary.
Despite the Washington Post’s inability to observe the most primordial elements of decency, they invite a look into the role of First Lady, an office without official status or function, but with tremendous impact.
There is no constitutional role for the spouse of the president. The Framers deliberately omitted it from the founding documents.
The legend that surrounds the role is that Zachary Taylor, at the funeral of Dolley Madison, referred to her as “first lady,” thus coining the title that has endured. The role of First Lady has been shaped and defined by those who held it.
From the nation’s earliest days, George and Martha Washington laid the foundation for future presidential spouses. Their partnership and what historian Micheal Beschloss describes as, “the national mother,” set the stage.
The First Lady serves several vital roles.
First, she is both protector and nurturer of the President of the United States. Both Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan were well known for their abilities in that realm.
Second, the First Lady is for hostess for and ambassador to the world. She is a principle assistant to the president in his ceremonial capacity as head-of-state. Jackie Kennedy shaped and defined this role and others have emulated her elegant style.
First Ladies also take on their own trademark personal initiatives. Dolley Madison, who served not only with her own husband, but along side of Thomas Jefferson who was a widower, championed orphans. Mary Todd Lincoln made the private care of Union soldiers her cause.
Lucy Webb Hayes, the first of the First Ladies to graduate from college, made women’s education the centerpiece of her efforts. She also promoted temperance, confining her husband to ban alcohol from the White House and earning herself the nickname, “Lemonade Lucy.”
In the twentieth century Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the most outspoken First Ladies, boosted equal rights. She also transformed the role, bringing in staff and more official status to the position. Lady Bird Johnson became synonymous with highway beautification, Betty Ford made alcoholism a disease that was more openly discussed and “Just say no” became the mantra linked to Nancy Reagan and her anti-drug campaign.
Barbara Bush worked tirelessly to eliminate leukemia and other childhood diseases. A hospital in Maine stands as a lasting tribute to her efforts. She also fought for literacy and libraries bear her name for the same reason. The Barbara Bush Literacy Foundation said she was a “tireless advocate of volunteerism.” One young man simply said, “because of her, I can read.”
Mrs. Bush served both as Second Lady, First Lady and Presidential Mom. In each she gave us reason to be proud. Hers was a life exceptionally well lived and a model for emulation by all.