Journalists often rely on first impressions, or only impressions, of people, whether famous or obscure.
I “met” Barbara Bush one time. Fittingly, it was in the White House, Feb. 15, 2011, minutes after her husband had been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It was a day of accomplished people – Warren Buffett here, Jean Kennedy Smith there, Bill Russell up there, Stan Musial over there, and Yo-Yo Ma sitting in with a Marine chamber group, with his pal President Obama standing nearby.
The kind of magic day that a journalist remembers forever.
As the afternoon became more informal, I was in a bustling hallway and spotted former president George H.W. Bush in a wheelchair, after receiving his medal. Standing alongside him was his wife, with her Mount Rushmore presence.
My mind went back to a visit to the White House in Oct., 1989, when President Bush held a schmooze-fest with baseball writers, pulling a George McQuinn glove out of his desk drawer. I believe he had worn it in the College World Series when he was a .251 hitter for Yale.
Now, in 2011, I saw an opportunity to chat with the old first baseman.
“Mr. President,” I began, reminding him how he had displayed his prized glove more than a decade earlier. Did he, I asked, still have the glove?
He took my question seriously, but was unable to come up with an answer. Then he turned to the person he clearly relied upon, standing nearby.
“Bar,” he began. “Do you know where my old glove is?”
We were not introduced, it was all so sweetly informal, and now it was a three-way conversation, with Barbara Bush wracking her memory of where the glove might be.
They instantly became Ma and Pa, so vital, so human, trying to place one object in a life that veered from the waspy Northeast suburbs to the Texas oil fields, to China, to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and now back “home” to Houston.
They were Everywoman and Everyman of a certain age, trying to track a baseball mitt – or an old coffee maker or a favorite sweater or a set of books. Maybe they said “attic” and maybe they said “storage” and maybe they said “downsizing.”
Bottom line was, they did not know, but they made eye contact with me, and gave me a civil answer, and then other people greeted them, and I politely moved on. I wound up using that quick encounter as my column that day about the importance of sport, as personified by Russell and Musial…and an old first baseman who didn’t know where his glove was.
So that is my permanent impression of Barbara Bush – the caretaker, the authority, the rock.
My wife reminds me that we heard Barbara Bush speak about adoption at a conference in DC, while she was First Lady. My wife, who was escorting children from India in those years, recalls how positive Mrs. Bush was about adoption, what a good speaker she was. Marianne has been a fan ever since.
That same aura comes through in the memories and obituaries today. I had been wary of Mrs. Bush years earlier when I heard she made a comment about the Magna Mater of my lefty family, Eleanor Roosevelt. But there is room for other strong people in this world.
The two George Bushes, pere et fils – how admirable, how stable, they seem these days – celebrate Barbara Bush, and, as a quick-study journalist type, I know they are right.
Another glimpse of Mrs. Bush: My friend John Zentay, a lawyer, is on the board of the National Archives, where Mrs. Bush gave a spirited talk a few years ago. Zentay said he and his wife, Diana, had recently visited Sea Island, Ga., where the Bushes honeymooned so long ago. Mrs. Bush emphatically said she and her husband had gone back recently and found it so expensive they would not go back. And she meant it.
I just read the wonderful obit written (I imagine, years ago) by a grand New York Times reporter, Enid Nemy, now 94, and I found out why Barbara Pierce happened to be born in my neck of the woods, Flushing, Queens, and I learned about the deaths of her mother and her young daughter.
f you haven’t read it already:
I think of that formidable woman I heard at a conference in D.C. and later met in a hallway at the White House, and I give thanks for the karma that put us in that same place, for a few fleeting moments. My quick impressions stack up perfectly with everything I have heard or read.
“Bar.” That’s what her husband called her. Three letters, and so strong.
* * *
From my friend Curt Smith, former speechwriter for President George H. Bush:
Barbara Bush was an extraordinary woman—much more complex than her public image. She was strong, a woman of great character, the rock of her expansive brood, the protectorate and center of her husband’s life, an enormous credit to her nation, loved around the world, and among the truly popular First Ladies in American history. In a book on her husband, I called her “Barbara Bush, Superstar.” She was. Bush would employ self-deprecating humor to suggest an identity crisis, living in her shadow. In fact, he knew what an enormous asset she was. She also read potential aides and real-life enemies more quickly than he did. She was tougher, in a way. As you know, their three-year-old daughter, Robin, died of leukemia in 1953. She ultimately recovered, at least on the surface, discussing it in the 1990s and 2000s. To this day, the President cannot discuss it without his voice choking, unable to proceed. Mrs. Bush knew this vulnerability, and was his most ardent—fiercest—defender, there always. She was always graceful to my wife and me, as she was to every American she met. She was a class act, in the classic American way. We don’t get nearly enough them of them anymore. Her religious faith made her face death with the same courage that she confronted life. God bless her.
---Curt Smith was a speechwriter who wrote more speeches than anyone for Pres. George H.W. Bush during his presidency. He is currently a senior lecturer of English at the Univ. of Rochester and is the author of 17 books, including a history of Presidents and Baseball, to be published in June.
It seems that the Bushes chose their wives well. A friend of ours is an Elizabeth Wharton scholar. She told us about how letters from Wharton were found in the attic of her housekeeper.
There was concern that when they were put out for auction a buyer might cut out Wharton’s signature and sell them individually. Laura Bush asked Yale to bid but was told that the university could not afford to. Laura said to buy the letters and not to worry about the cost. She found someone to finance the purchase.
Our friend later had access to the letters and wrote a book about them.
Several years latter, Sandi and I saw Laura on the Highline in Manhattan. As she passed we said, thanks for Wharton letters. In that brief second, she gave us a big smile. –Alan Rubin