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Former first lady Barbara Bush dies at 92

Bush was the second American who was both the wife and mother of presidents. She did practically everything in politics short of running herself.

Former first lady Barbara Bush with her husband at the inauguration of her son as governor of Texas in 1999.

Barbara Pierce Bush, matriarch of an American political dynasty that has produced presidents, governors and other high officials, has died in Houston. She was 92.

Bush was an outspoken public figure, often putting into words the thoughts that the elected men in her family were too cautious to utter. She did practically everything in politics short of running for office herself, organizing campaigns and “women’s groups,” in the parlance of the day, and riding herd on political friendships and organizations critical to electing her husband, George H.W. Bush, to the U.S. House, the vice presidency and ultimately to the presidency itself. Her oldest son, George W. Bush, was the 43rd president after twice winning election as governor of Texas. Her younger son Jeb Bush was governor of Florida and, later, an unsuccessful candidate for president. And one of her grandsons, George. P. Bush, is currently the land commissioner of Texas.

Left to right: Former President George H.W. Bush, his wife, former First Lady Barbara Bush, Laura Bush and her husband George W. Bush, who was being inaugurated for his second term as governor, in Austin on Jan. 19, 1999.
Left to right: Former President George H.W. Bush; his wife, former first lady Barbara Bush; Laura Bush; and her husband, George W. Bush, who was being inaugurated for his second term as governor, in Austin on Jan. 19, 1999. Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

Barbara Bush was the second American who was both the wife and mother of presidents; the other was Abigail Adams. She and George Bush, married 73 years ago in January 1945, had the longest-lasting marriage of any first couple. Both were from political families. Her grandfather, James Robinson, was on Ohio’s first Supreme Court, according to Richard Ben Cramer’s "What It Takes." Her father, Marvin Pierce, was a distant descendant of President Franklin Pierce. George H.W. Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, was a U.S. senator from Connecticut.

She was a strong advocate for literacy programs — the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy was started while she was first lady — and authored several books: "Barbara Bush: A Memoir"; "Millie’s Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush"; and "Reflections: Life After the White House." At the Republican National Convention in 1988, she made a presidential nominating speech for her husband, becoming the first spouse to take on what quickly became a standard feature of national political conventions.

Former First Lady Barbara Bush and daughter-in-law Laura Bush attend a dedication at the Nimitz Museum in Fredricksburg on Sept. 6, 1998.
Former first lady Barbara Bush and daughter-in-law Laura Bush attend a dedication at the Nimitz Museum in Fredricksburg on Sept. 6, 1998. Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

After leaving the White House, the Bushes moved to Houston and established a presidential library in College Station.

Bush’s decline in health was announced on Sunday in a statement from her husband’s office: “Following a recent series of hospitalizations, and after consulting her family and doctors, Mrs. Bush, now age 92, has decided not to seek additional medical treatment and will instead focus on comfort care. It will not surprise those who know her that Barbara Bush has been a rock in the face of her failing health, worrying not for herself — thanks to her abiding faith — but for others. She is surrounded by a family she adores, and appreciates the many kind messages and especially the prayers she is receiving.”

Jenna Bush Hager, her granddaughter, added a personal note the next day on NBC’s Today show.

“We are grateful for her,” Hager said. “She is the best grandma anybody could’ve ever had — or have. Barbara and I talked to her last night, she's in great spirits and she's a fighter. She's an enforcer. She reminded me not to believe everything you read. We're grateful for her, for everybody's prayers and thoughts, and just know the world is better because she's in it.”

Bush had six children, 17 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Her daughter Robin died at age three from leukemia, a family tragedy that George W. Bush has said made him close to and protective of his mother and that Barbara Bush wrote turned her hair prematurely white. She was 28 years old at the time.

Family members and prominent Texans put out statements of condolence Tuesday evening.

"Barbara Bush was a fabulous First Lady and a woman unlike any other who brought levity, love, and literacy to millions," George W. Bush said. "To us, she was so much more. Mom kept us on our toes and kept us laughing until the end. I’m a lucky man that Barbara Bush was my mother. Our family will miss her dearly, and we thank you all for your prayers and good wishes."

George P. Bush said on Twitter that his grandmother's "entire life was focused on others. For my grandfather, she was his top adviser and confidante. For her family, she was a steady, loving and guiding hand. And for her country, she was an inspiration and an example for all."

Jeb Bush called his mother an "exceptionally gracious, gregarious, fun, funny, loving, tough, smart, graceful woman” in a statement and said he and his family "look forward to celebrating and honoring her life and contributions to our family and great nation in the coming days."

"As a wife, mother, grandmother, military spouse, and former First Lady, Mrs. Bush was an advocate of the American Family," a statement from President Donald Trump's office read. "She will be long remembered for her strong devotion to country and family, both of which she served unfailingly well."

"Her selfless devotion to service defines the inspiring legacy Barbara has left behind," Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement. "Her impact on Texas and our nation will forever be treasured."

“Barbara has blessed this nation with her unwavering service, strong moral compass, and trademark sense of humor,” U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said in a statement. “Eternally devoted to her faith, family, and country, her legacy in promoting literacy will live on in the families she touched and young minds she helped cultivate.”

"She was as much a public servant as her husband and children: traveling the world as advisor and ambassador, campaigning for adult literacy programs at home, and, of course, making George Senior eat his broccoli," said U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, adding that she "approached her public role with a class and grace seldom matched in our nation’s capital."

Bush will lie in repose from noon to midnight on Friday at St. Martin's Church in Houston for those wishing to pay their respects, a spokesman said Tuesday night. A private funeral service is scheduled for Saturday in Houston.

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