The nation has been blessed with memorable and impressive first ladies, from the days of Martha Washington and Dolly Madison to Laura Bush and Michelle Obama.
We look forward to the day when the nation will be blessed with memorable and impressive “first gentlemen” as well. Former first lady Barbara Bush said in a commencement address at Wellesley College, an all-women’s college, in 1990, “Who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse.”
After skipping a beat, she said, “And I wish him well.”
It was Bush’s plain-spoken candor, her intelligence and wit, and her work on nonpartisan causes such as improving literacy as a way to improve lives that endeared her to many through a long public career.
As the spouse of George H.W. Bush — one of the longest-serving and most accomplished American leaders of the century — as well as the mother of a president and of a presidential contender, she was in the public eye longer than most political partners. She made her own mark as an author, an advocate and in the case of Mayo Clinic, an accomplished member of the board of trustees and frequent visitor to Rochester.
As an advocate for improving literacy, especially in early education, she made the connection between literacy and job potential and well-being later in life. “Literacy fits in with so many other things. If more people could read, fewer people would have AIDS. There would be less homelessness. I’m absolutely convinced of that,” she said.
It’s been noted since her passing at age 92 Tuesday that she was the last first lady to serve during a period of relative bipartisanship in Washington. The key word there is “relative.” As you’ll recall, there was ferocious partisanship during the Reagan years, followed by ferocious partisanship in the Clinton years, culminating with the first impeachment trial in 130 years.
Even so, it truly was a different era, less divided between the extremes of left and right. Her husband aspired to a “kinder and gentler nation.” Depending on your mood and the morning tweets, it’s easy to imagine that those days are gone forever.
Regardless, Barbara Bush was from another era of dignity and distinction. She was of the “Greatest Generation,” as was her husband, the last from that era to occupy the White House. She was everyone’s grandma when she came to Rochester for a Mayo board meeting but took time to read to young people at the public library.
Thirty years ago, at a time when people afflicted with AIDS were often feared and shunned, she embraced a child infected with HIV. “There is a need for compassion,” she said.
There is a need for more people like Barbara Bush.