Barbara Bush On Meeting George, Motherhood And Her Signature Fake Pearls

Apr 18, 2018
Originally published on April 20, 2018 8:26 am

Former first lady Barbara Bush died Tuesday after a series of hospitalizations. She was the wife of former President George H.W. Bush and the mother of former President George W. Bush.

Born Barbara Pierce in New York City, Bush initially thought she'd grow up to become a nurse. "But then I met that marvelous George Bush and the nursing went out the window," she told Fresh Air in 1994.

The Bushes settled in Midland, Texas, where Barbara became a stay-at-home mother. Her husband's work often required him to travel, which, she said, put pressure on her to be both "mother and father sometimes."

"I remember thinking at times, 'They're wonderful children — they're beautiful and they're brilliant — but they haven't said one thing that makes them fascinating all week long.' Well, every mother feels that," Bush said, "but it's worth it."

In the 1970s, with her children grown and her husband heading up the CIA, Bush experienced severe depression, which she wrote about in her 1994 memoir, Barbara Bush. Looking back on that period, she said, "It was an awful time. But having said that, I'm now much more sympathetic to people who have problems, and I really feel free to say to people, 'Get help. There's help out there.' "

Later, when the her husband was elected president, Bush made headlines for rebuffing pressure to color her white hair and unabashedly wearing fake pearl necklaces. "I wouldn't want them if they were real," she said of the pearls. "They're sort of fun, and, besides that, they're big enough to cover my wrinkles."


Interview Highlights

On meeting George H.W. Bush at a dance when she was 16

He asked someone to introduce me to him and we then became friends. ... I was a good dancer. He was not a good dancer. In those days, you went to a dance with — either you just went or you went with a boy, but he did not expect to dance with you all night. You expected to dance with other people. And when George did dance with me and they suddenly started to play a waltz and George said, "Do you mind if we sit down? Because I don't know how to waltz." And we did sit down and talk. And he came to a party he knew I was going to be attending the next night, and it sort of went on from there.

On losing her 3-year-old daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia

You'll always hope there'll be a cure. ... It was hard on her, and certainly hard on George, who had to keep on in business and work. It was hard on me and our family, but on the other hand, if you ever give up hope you give up living.

On how her daughter's death made her a nervous parent

I do remember when one of the children, or two of them, had their tonsils out, someone saying to me, "Oh, well, after what you've been through, tonsils are nothing." I said, "Well, after what I've been through, tonsils are worse than ever."

Everything becomes more valuable and your children's health, which you used to take for granted, suddenly becomes very tentative. But I got over being quite so nervous about them. ...

Thank goodness for George [H.W.] Bush, because he believes in independence and he always gave the children independence and he would trust them. And when I would think they were maybe more like me — that they shouldn't be trusted or something — he would say, "Of course they can drive across the country when they're 16. They have their license." I would panic, but they did it. And they're great kids.

On how she navigated disagreements with her husband when he was in office

My belief is that unless you're courageous enough to run for office yourself, you can tell your husband or your wife what you think quietly in your own private time, and then you present a united front. I believe in that. If I had run for office, I would hope George would pay me the same courtesy. ...

I really don't think the party platform matters. That's not a good thing to say, but I can't remember a word the Democrats said. I can't remember a word the Republicans said. I think platforms should be very broad-based and inclusive — not exclusive.

On deciding not to have a makeover, despite the pressure, for her role as first lady

George always said, "You're great the way you are. Don't try to change." As a little girl, my dad used to say all the time — he used to embarrass me to death as I'd go out the door, maybe with a date: "It's nice to be natural, and you're naturally nice." I wanted to kill him because I was hoping to impress someone with how sophisticated I was. But having said that, that's probably true. I decided that, after a little struggle, that I would not try to be something I wasn't.

Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted this interview for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Former first lady Barbara Bush died yesterday at age 92. She was the wife of President George H.W. Bush and the mother of President George W. Bush. I spoke with her in 1994 after she published her memoir. We're going to hear an excerpt of that interview. We started by talking about her childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BARBARA BUSH: Well, I grew up in Rye, N.Y. I had a wonderful mother and father and two brothers and one sister. It was a town of 8,000 people, and it was a wonderful little town.

GROSS: When you were a girl, what were your fantasies about what you wanted to be as a woman, what you wanted your life to be like when you grew up?

BUSH: I guess like my mother's. I (laughter) don't know. We just had a wonderful, very healthy, outdoor childhood. And I think - I had an older sister, and I guess I wanted to copy her and copy my mother. I later decided that I'd like to be a nurse. But then I met that marvelous George Bush, and the nursing went out the window.

GROSS: How did you meet your husband, George Bush?

BUSH: I met him at a dance in Greenwich, Conn., when I was 16. And he asked someone to introduce me to him, and we then became friends.

GROSS: Were you a good dancer? Was - did you feel that this was a comfortable way to meet a boy?

BUSH: Well, I was a good dancer. He was not a good (laughter) dancer. And that's really how - in those days, you know, you went to a dance with - either you just went, or you went with a boy. But he did not expect to dance with you all night. You expected to dance with other people. And one - George did dance with me, and then they suddenly started to play a waltz. And George said, do you mind if we sit down - because I don't know how to waltz. And we did sit down and talk. And he came to a party he knew I was going to be attending the next night and sort of went on from there.

GROSS: Now, I think when you met, you were 16. He was 17. You were married three years later. He was a pilot in the war then. Did the war affect your feelings of urgency about getting married?

BUSH: Absolutely. I know that my family and his would not have approved of our getting married at 19 and 20 if it hadn't been for the war, and we knew he was going back overseas.

GROSS: Your husband was in the oil business before entering politics. And I've read that you moved at least 11 times in the first six years of marriage. And he had to travel a lot, and you often had to manage the family alone. What were those years like for you? What were some of the stresses that you faced?

BUSH: Well, for 20 years, George was in business. And we did (laughter) move a lot. But we settled down in Midland, Texas, and - the same stresses everybody whose husband has a job out of town face. I mean, some of my children are going through that now. You have to be mother and father sometimes. But you forget those times.

I remember thinking at times, they're wonderful children; they're beautiful, and they're brilliant, but they haven't said one thing that makes them fascinating all week long; I want to talk to adults. Well, every mother feels that, but it's worth it. I mean, take the time to talk to them, and read to them and help them grow up. And it's worth it. They are now the world's greatest living humans, so I guess it was fine.

GROSS: Your second child, Robin, was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 3, and she died just a few months later. You write in your memoirs that the doctor said, this is the advice I would give you - don't tell anyone she's sick. Don't even try to treat her. Just take her home, make her as comfortable as you can, and let her gently slip away, and she'll probably die within three weeks. How did that advice sound at the time to you?

BUSH: Well, it sounds just the way it sounds now. Probably was true, but you couldn't do that. You always hope there'll be a cure. And today that wouldn't happen. There has been a semi-cure for leukemia, really. So it was worth trying. It was hard on her. And it was certainly hard on George, who had to keep on in business and work. And it was hard on me and our family. But on the other hand, if you ever give up hope, you give up living.

GROSS: Did you become more nervous about the health of your other children...

BUSH: That's a...

GROSS: ...After losing one?

BUSH: That's a good question. I haven't been asked that for a long time. But I do remember when one of the children or two of them had their tonsils out, someone saying to me, oh, well, after what you've been through, tonsils are nothing. And I said, well, after what I've been through, tonsils are worse than ever. I mean, I think you - everything becomes more valuable, and your children's health, which you used to take for granted, suddenly becomes very tentative. But I got over being quite so nervous about them.

GROSS: There's the - one of the difficult parts of your life, according to your memoirs, is - was around 1975 when your husband became the head of the CIA.

BUSH: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: And you describe that period as a period in which you were a very depressed, lonely and unhappy. And I just want to read a paragraph from your new memoirs. You write, (reading) it is still not easy to talk about today, and I certainly didn't talk about it then. I felt ashamed. I had a husband whom I adored, the world's greatest children, more friends than I could see, and I was severely depressed. I hid it from everyone, including my closest friends - everyone but George Bush. He would suggest that I get professional help, and that sent me into deeper gloom. He was working such incredibly long hours at his job, and I swore to myself that I would not burden him. Then he would come home, and I would tell him all about it. Night after night, George held me, weeping in his arms, while I tried to explain my feelings. I almost wonder why he didn't leave me. Sometimes the pain was so great, I felt the urge to drive into a tree or an oncoming car. When that happened, I would pull over to the side of the road until I felt OK.

Looking back on that period of your life, what do you think caused that incredible depression?

BUSH: I'm pretty sure I know what caused it now - stupidity on my part - but I think I was going through maybe menopause, and our children were gone for the first time, and it'd been the first time that George had had a job in a number of years that I really couldn't share in because I can't keep a secret. I still can't keep a secret.

But having said that, I think all those things combined gave me that sort of really deep depression. But now there's a positive side to this story. I'm glad it happened now, although there was a physical pain then that went with it, and it wasn't very - it was an awful time. But having said that, I'm now much more sympathetic to people who have problems, and I really feel free to say to people, get help. There's help out there.

My doctor, when I told him later and said, why didn't you help me? He said, well, why didn't you tell me? And I was embarrassed. And I just thought - my code said, you ought to be strong, and you can overcome things if you just think of others. Well, I think that's partially true, but I also think that there's - you can get chemical help that will help you over difficult times.

GROSS: At the time of this depression or, I guess, shortly afterwards, you told one magazine that you thought it was because of the women's movement, because the women's movement had made you think your life had been wasted.

BUSH: Well, I thought that was a fourth ingredient into it beside the no sharing the job, the children gone, the menopause. I thought the women's movement at that time - it isn't so true anymore - sort of made women who stayed at home feel inadequate.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1994 interview with former first lady Barbara Bush. She died yesterday. We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1994 interview with former first lady Barbara Bush. She died yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: In your memoir, you write a bit about abortion, and you say that you don't like abortions, but you think a woman should have the right to make that decision for herself. How did you reach that conclusion?

BUSH: This is how I reached the conclusion. I agree with George Bush 99 percent of the way. And, I mean, I - he and I both believe that abortion is permissible when you have rape, incest and the life of the mother at stake. We both agreed - at least, I agree - the first trimester only. I do not agree - some states allow abortions up to the third trimester. I do not agree with that. We both think you should have parental consent. We believe that's very important. When push comes to shove, I myself would never have an abortion. But having said that, I can't make that judgment for someone else.

GROSS: So when your husband was president and you disagreed with him on something, what did you see as your job in terms of either going public with an opinion or making sure no one found out about it?

BUSH: My job - well, I'm not sure it was my job but my belief is that unless you're courageous enough to run for office yourself, you can tell your husband or your wife what you think quietly in your own private time and then you present a united front. And I believe in that. If I had run for office, I would hope George would pay me the same courtesy.

GROSS: When you became first lady or when your husband first started running for president, you know, image is so important in American politics today. Were there ever any attempts at, quote, "makeovers" for you?

BUSH: There were a few. But George always said, you're great the way you are. Don't try to change. You know, as a little girl, my dad used to say all the time - remember he used to embarrass me to death and say it as I'd go out the door maybe with a date, it's nice to be natural and you're naturally nice. I wanted to kill him because I was hoping to impress someone with how sophisticated I was. But having said that, that's probably true. I decided that I would not - after a little struggle - that I would not try to be something I wasn't.

GROSS: Was there a period when you did try to be something that you weren't?

BUSH: Well, I dyed my hair for years. I was white-headed when I was in my 30s, and I dyed my hair for a number of years. But I gave that up.

GROSS: So many articles about you have mentioned that your pearls, which you so often wear, are fake pearls.

BUSH: Really?

GROSS: Yeah. Have you ever noticed how many times that's mentioned?

BUSH: I thought they were real.

GROSS: Yeah, right (laughter).

BUSH: Darn it.

GROSS: So is this intentional that you're not wearing real pearls?

BUSH: Do you know how much real pearls this size would cost? And besides that, my head would be cut off to get them. But...

GROSS: You have the money to buy it, right?

BUSH: No. Nobody could buy my pearls. I mean, I wouldn't - I wouldn't really - wouldn't want them if they were real. They're sort of fun. And besides that, they're big enough to cover my wrinkles.

GROSS: I have one last question for you. It seems to me that you are a very strong person with a very firm sense of when to say yes and when to say no.

BUSH: Oh, I hope so.

GROSS: And with the press too of when to say we've spoken about this a lot, I don't care to answer that. And I wonder if you - where you feel you developed the sense of that. I know one of the things that a lot of professional women say is that one of the hardest things for them has been has been learning how to say no because so many women they feel grew up in a time when they were socialized to be accommodating and to say yes and to want to be liked. And then you get to a point professionally where it's not about being liked, it's about making the right choices and about saying no when it's time to say no. Was that a hard thing for you to learn?

BUSH: That's the funniest question I ever heard. But the truth is my mother told me say no. I don't know.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

BUSH: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: My interview with Barbara Bush was recorded in 1994. She died yesterday at age 92.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS TRIO'S "KRISTEN")

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR - President Trump has used Twitter to insult his opponents, fire his secretary of state and fire up his base, but he has a director of social media, Dan Scavino, whose office is next to the president's. So what does Scavino do? We'll talk with Robert Draper about his New York Times Magazine article titled "The Man Behind The President's Tweets." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.