The Silver Fox: Rest in Peace, Barbara Bush

Barbara Bush was one of those national figures who subsequently became even more admired – and less criticized – than during her stint as a player in the very public game of political life.

Such easing of perceptions can be a startling result of the passage of time.  Viewed through the prism of nostalgia, one's image, though faded, often improves.  And those who are fortunate to have lived a long time may even earn an extra dollop of admiration.

As for Barbara Bush, there was a lot more to admire her for than her survival to age 92.  With the exception of Abigail Adams, she was the only woman to be both the wife of one American president and the mother of another.

"Bar" was a tough cookie with great heart.  Her other nicknames – meant fondly – included "the silver fox" and "the enforcer."  She believed in being good and doing good.  As a much beloved matriarch, she was the glue that held her tribe together.  And like the Kennedys, she existed within a political dynasty that became identified with a symbolic "compound."  The establishment of such a close family circle is everybody's lifelong dream, one into which even President Bill Clinton felt himself drawn.

A vast number of American women found it easy to identify with Barbara Bush.  They cottoned to her candor, her self-deprecating humor, her professed no-nonsense approach to the duties of first and second lady, and her unswerving loyalty to her husband of 73 years.

And let's face it: in a way, Barbara Bush helped to validate those of us whose figures bear scant resemblance to those sashaying to applause along fashion's runways.  Still, she handled herself with style and grace, popularizing periwinkle blue – and pearl chokers.

Barbara was never a proclaimed feminist, though it was rumored that she had difference with her spouse over issues like abortion.  Still, one might suppose that her determination, fair-handedness, and outspoken concern for needs like literacy might have won over women of all political stripes.

That was not always the case.  For all her popularity with millions of Americans, Barbara Bush weathered plenty of derision from her critics.  Never mind the inevitable snide snipers who took potshots at her weight, her premature white hair, and her occasional acerbic wit.  (During the Bush-Mondale presidential contest, Barbara described Democrat V.P. candidate Geraldine Ferraro as "something that sounds like 'rich.'")

On a more serious note, she was chided by some as not having personally accomplished anything outside the family home.  Her rise to prominence, they felt, was due entirely to the career successes of her husband, since her sole work experience consisted of being briefly employed in a shop on the Yale campus, where George had returned after WWII to complete his degree.

In particular, I recall the incident when the first lady was invited to deliver the commencement address to the 1990 graduating class at Wellesley College.  (She had attended rival Smith College but left prematurely to get married while George was on leave from his fighter pilot duties.)

After the invitation was announced, an angry coterie of Wellesley students demanded that it be rescinded.  Their argument was that Mrs. Bush's claim to fame – if that was the word – had come only as a result of her husband's accomplishments, not hers.

To those would-be future hotshots of American industry and academe, who harbored an acute need to see women "make a difference" in a world beyond motherhood, Barbara Bush hardly deserved to be the one addressing them on their graduation day.  Anyhow, with life-after-college hanging in the balance, what could a mere wife and mother – particularly one born into a wealthy (Republican) family – have to offer them by way of meaningful advice?

It was another conflicting incident for my alma mater, as had been Hillary Rodham's dressing down of the commencement speaker years before.  (Ironically, not long afterward, Hillary would succeed Barbara as first lady.)  What to do?  The college administration would find it embarrassing to renege on its invitation.  On the other hand, if Mrs. Bush did come, her presence might incite a rude reception – or worse.

Wiser heads prevailed, and the invitation stood.  But the wisest head of all balanced on the broad shoulders of "the silver fox," who soon dropped a bombshell.  At around commencement time, Mikhail Gorbachev, the final leader of the then-Soviet Union, paid a state visit to Washington, bringing with him his wife, Raisa, who happened to enjoy a high public profile of her own.

Russia was not in the crosshairs of contempt with liberals then as it is now, and there was general enthusiasm for Gorbachev's policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring).  Raisa was only too happy to accompany her American counterpart to the Wellesley graduation on June 1.  It was a sort of "two for the price of one" deal that even Bill and Hillary might envy.

Before an attentive class of graduates and their guests, both first ladies spoke of the role of women in modern society.  The day was considered a big success.  Barbara had kept her cool, even earning the admiration – however grudging – of the college crowd.

"America's Grandmother" – another moniker for Barbara Bush – was a feisty lady widely applauded for her pluck; her devotion; and, yes, her longevity.  Like a string of luminous pearls, such qualities never do go out of style.