Not for nothing was Barbara Bush known as 'The Enforcer'
Tough, funny and effective, Barbara Bush was pre-eminent among recent US first ladies, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
Barbara Bush, tougher than her husband and known to her family as 'The Enforcer', is probably the most popular of all ex-US first ladies of recent times. Jackie Kennedy is remembered across the globe for elegance and tragedy, but she was not loved. Rosalynn Carter worked hard and was a noted campaigner on issues of mental health, but she has suffered in retrospect because of her bitterness at his defeat by Ronald Reagan, who is widely perceived to have been as great a success as Carter was a failure. The brittle Nancy Reagan was an essential support to her husband, but was thought to care little for anyone else. Hillary Clinton was loathed by those who thought her a careerist. The likeable Laura Bush did a lot of useful work but lacked her mother-in-law's commanding personality. And although Michelle Obama had rock-star status, that has diminished as she and her husband embrace luxury and celebrity. Betty Ford is probably the closest rival, having been far more effective and formidable than her husband Gerald, the 38th president, and still having a posthumous reputation for her prowess as a campaigner on addiction, not least because so many of the famous troop to the Betty Ford Clinic.
Various presidents queued up to praise Barbara Bush last week. The 44th, Obama, was a touch self-serving in his expression of gratitude for "the generosity she showed to us throughout our time in the White House", but even more so for "the way she lived her life - as a testament to the fact that public service is an important and noble calling".
The 43th, George W, eldest son, explained that he was keeping a public engagement the day after her death because she would have said: "Make darn sure you participate fully in the leadership forum. In other words, 'Don't sit around and feel sorry for me or yourself… but move on with life'." She taught him the power of self-deprecating humour. "My mail tells me that a lot of fat, white-haired, wrinkled ladies are tickled pink," she said on the eve of her husband's inauguration. "I mean, look at me - if I can be a success, so can they."