I was saddened to learn yesterday of the passing of an American icon, Barbara Bush. No matter what your political affiliation, there was something about that woman that endeared her to us. I would like to share some of these aspects—glimpses of her personality that I learned over the years—that made her one of my favorite First Ladies.
Back in 1990, on a whim, I bought the New York Times best seller that she wrote about her dog, called “Millie’s Book.” In it, Barbara chronicles the appearance of her Springer Spaniel, Millie, to the White House and the part she played in the first family’s lives. There are photos of Barbara meeting foreign dignitaries and heads of state, always with faithful Millie at her side. You could just see how the dog’s presence made these stiff, self-conscious, powerful people relax a bit and feel more, well, human, as they bent down to pet her. Then came the glorious day when Millie gave birth to six puppies in a wooden box lined with newspapers put together by the White House carpenters. Now puppies romped around the famous White House lawn with the delighted President. This occurrence brought a sense of joy and excitement—and a sense of normalcy—to what must be the most structured, demanding place to live in America. And what is more American than having a pet dog and raising puppies? I loved that Barbara insisted that the First Family have a dog—and a well-trained, gracious one at that—to make the White House seem more like a home.
I noticed that when Barbara was photographed by the press, and for this book, she was almost always wearing a pearl necklace—three strands of large pearls. At first, I assumed they must be expensive jewels, but was amazed to discover that they were fake. They cost $150 to be exact, which isn’t totally cheap, but a whole lot less than the Queen of England’s royal gems! “This lady’s got gumption and a sense of class,” I thought. “She’s not afraid to wear something that looks appropriate but doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.”
Recently, I learned more about Barbara, after reading Robert Mesnier’s book, “All the President’s Pastries: Twenty-five Years in the White House. He reveals the culinary penchants and tastes of the First Families: the Carters, the Reagans, the George Bushes, the Clintons, and the George W. Bushes. By far his most favorite First Lady to serve under was Barbara Bush. Especially after working for Nancy Reagan. Chef Mesnier relates how Nancy would insist that he prepare sample dinners for her before every state affair so she could make sure everything was perfect. Then there was the dinner when she wanted hand-made sugar sculptures for every dessert plate. When Mesnier moaned “But the dinner is tomorrow!” Nancy looked him straight in the eye and said, “Well, you have all night.” And Mesnier spent that night creating the desserts as requested. So, you can see that Barbara’s more relaxed, down-to-earth personality and less stringent demands won him over. He relates how she would rise every morning and take a swim in the White House pool, then stroll across the lawn in her casual sweats, often dropping in the kitchen for a chat. You can’t help but like this woman!
Those are my little glimpses into Barbara’s personality. I hope you have found them enlightening and further endear you to this figure in American history. She was a champion for literacy, a wife and mother of two Presidents—but what will be remembered by me is how her dog, fake pearls, and relaxed down-to-earth style made the White House seem like a place you would actually like to live in. Blessings on you, dear Barbara!