The Silver Fox

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I had a small crisis this week.

I was staying at a very stylish hotel in New York City where I knew they always had a bathrobe in the closet, so I left mine at home. I had called room service for coffee, then discovered there was no robe. When the coffee came, I took a sheet off the bed and wrapped it around myself toga style to answer the door. I can imagine what the waiter thought. I can just see him going back to the kitchen and saying, "You'll never guess what I saw in Room 1712!"

-- From the campaign diary of Barbara Bush

America, meet Barbara Bush, taking center stage in national life just in the knick of time. Nancy Reagan had many good qualities, but she was, well, something of a strain: those rail-thin looks, that hard-edged show-biz glitter and no children or grandchildren around to mess things up. The country may be ready for a First Lady who is honest about her size (14), her age (63) and her pearls (fake). She sports sweats on the weekends with no intention of jogging, does her own hair, likes takeout tacos, devours mystery novels, poaches at the net in mixed doubles, teases her husband and speaks her mind. When she is home near her own bathrobe, she wears it outside to walk the dog.

Barbara Bush knows that the two-mile move from the Vice President's 1893 Victorian mansion on Embassy Row to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is more than a change of Zip Codes. As she puts color-coded stickers on the furniture and pictures to signify what goes, what stays and what gets tossed out in this latest move, she is already nostalgic over life as Second Lady. "I got away with murder," says the woman who allowed as how Nancy Reagan should have simply replaced the White House china a piece at a time instead of buying a whole new set, and who suggested that her husband strip down to disprove rumors that he was wounded during a tryst. As she prepares for her new post, she says, "I'm now slightly more careful about what I say." (Pause) "Slightly."

On its face, First Ladyhood looks easy enough: one gets to live in a big house with a large yard, travel a lot and throw fancy dinner parties. Someone else cleans up. But the job -- unpaid and with no days off -- has its pitfalls. The person a pillow away from the presidency is held up to an undefined ideal; she bears all America's conflicting notions about women as wives, mothers, lovers, colleagues and friends. A First Lady should be charming but not all fluff, gracious but not a doormat, substantive but not a co-President. She must defend her husband and smile bravely when he says stupid things. She must look great, even fashionable, when a shower and clean clothes would suffice for anyone else; possess perfect children though such critters do not exist in nature; and traipse around the globe in a suit and sensible pumps when she would rather be home with a good book. She has both a day and a night job, but is not allowed a profession of her own. Hardest of all, she has to appear to love every minute of it.

Yet, in an era when the concept of First Lady seems like a stuffy anachronism, Barbara Bush may prove to be the right woman in the right place. She has projects -- literacy, cancer research, education -- that predate her husband's bug for politics. As she heads for 64, with no regrets about having poured her energies into raising her family, she seems to have enough heart left over to suffer fools gladly. Years of good works behind her, she is the embodiment of the kinder, gentler world that her husband so gauzily evoked during the campaign.

Like many political wives, Barbara has devoted her life to her husband, the first man she ever kissed, with whom she has survived a wartime separation, 44 years of marriage, 29 moves, the death of a child, public rumors of his infidelity and the rigors of three national campaigns. Through it all, she has remained defiantly independent. Her Secret Service code name -- Tranquillity -- belies the fact that she has several hot buttons. Criticism, particularly of her husband, moves her to anger, as it did in 1984, when she suggested to reporters questioning the Bushes' wealth that a word that rhymes with rich might be an appropriate label for Geraldine Ferraro. She can cut off an interview with a wave of the hand, having been burned once too often by those who talk sweetly but interview harshly (as when Jane Pauley asked her, "Your husband is a man of the '80s, and you're a woman of the '40s. What do you say to that?").

She refers to Ann Richards, who delivered a stinging critique of her husband at the Democratic National Convention, as "that woman." As for Ted Kennedy's famous "Where was George?" line, Barbara can only say, "He shouldn't even say George Bush's name." Though she has spent much of her life in Texas, this product of tony Rye, N.Y., can still summon a patrician bearing to cut the uppity down to size. The next President says she is "more direct" than he is. Says campaign manager and Republican Party Chairman Lee Atwater: "She can spot a phony a mile away." Her children have a nickname for her: the Silver Fox.

Barbara and George Herbert Walker Bush have striking yet compatible differences. He hates to quarrel; she once liked it. She kids him about being too big for his britches, especially his style of britches. She particularly goes after the cowboy boots he sports for both day and evening wear. "They've got his initials in gold on the side -- just two of them, not four of them -- and the Lone Star State star. In color." He kids her about suspending the usual rules of conduct when it comes to her English springer spaniel, Millie. "That dog literally comes between us at night," he complains. "She wedges right up between our heads, and Bar likes it. She's failing with the discipline. She was better with the kids than she is with the dog." Millie is pregnant, Bush announced last week.

George grumps about having to pack a few boxes to be shipped to the summer house in Kennebunkport, Me.; Barbara meticulously plans every move and every trip. "She's the type of person," says son Marvin, "who always wanted us to get to the airport an hour early. Dad likes to get to the airport five minutes before departure." She was so organized -- rarely missing one of the kids' games, throwing labor-intensive birthday parties, volunteering for scoutmaster -- that a friend says she could have run General Motors with time left over. "She always made me feel like a slob," said Marion Chambers, an acquaintance from the Bushes' days in Midland, Texas. Barbara writes thank-you notes the minute she gets home. While other people throw mementos from trips into a box, Barbara has arranged hers in a series of more than 60 giant scrapbooks. It's a wonder she doesn't have more enemies.

Barbara may spoil the dog, but she criticizes George for not disciplining the kids enough. She still posts the rules of conduct on the doors at Kennebunkport in case anyone has forgotten them. The kids agree that their mother ruled the court of common pleas while George rode the circuits and was brought in only for major infractions.

But having five children close together made Barbara more than a one-minute manager. It gave her a sense of humor, a playful, teasing manner (the secret of a strong marriage, she says), and a casual attitude toward how many people the pot roast can feed. Says Marvin Bush, now 32: "Everyone always wanted to come over to our house." She loves to have her five children and ten grandchildren around her; she is flexible about George's 5,000 closest friends dropping by. On a few hours' notice two weeks ago, Bush brought Senator Nancy Kassebaum, Treasury Secretary Nick Brady, Senator Lloyd Bentsen and lawyer- Democrat Bob Strauss home to dinner. One of the best things about moving to the White House, Barbara says, is that the vice-presidential mansion "has one guest bedroom. Now I'm going to have a lot more."

While Barbara's humor is clever, Bush's can be prep-school puerile. Several weeks ago, at a private dinner at the Chinese embassy, the President-elect brought a novelty gag, a dollar bill attached to a long fishing line that appears to be free for the taking on the floor. When a waiter went for the bait, Bush quickly snatched it out of reach. Bush and his host, the Chinese Ambassador, found the gag great fun. Barbara, whose humor tends to be verbal, rolled her eyes and turned to the Ambassador: "You're going to have your work cut out for you with the new Administration."

The humor has served her well in politics. In her campaign stump speech, she regularly poked fun at herself, telling audiences that, if recognized at all, she is confused with Mrs. George Shultz. After the Ferraro crack, she opted for an immediate apology and told reporters that "the poet laureate has retired." Though public criticism of her hair, weight and wrinkles have hurt her, she has turned such remarks to her advantage. After her hair turned white in her early 30s, she began dyeing it "warm brown," although it was a nuisance for someone who swam frequently and shampooed every day. "One time," recalls Marvin, "I came home, and it was brown and orange, and it was like, 'Whoa, Mom, what happened?' " Eventually, she just gave up the coloring -- "It was ridiculous," she said.

Barbara's clothes are attractive, but she will never be known, as her predecessor was, by her designer affiliation. To keep from hyping Seventh Avenue, she broke with tradition and did not issue a press release about her Inaugural gown in advance, although details leaked out.

As for weight, well, she enjoys eating too much ever to be as svelte as she once was. She laments that the campaign added 13 lbs. to her 5-ft. 8-in. frame. During the Bushes' Florida postelection vacation, photos appeared of her swimming in the type of bathing suit popular with matrons in the '50s. Later, she jokingly asked photographers to cap their lenses -- "My children are complaining all over the country." When she told a reporter that her trademark pearls were $90 fakes worn to hide her wrinkles, it was a comment on the universal regret at aging and the hopeless human foible of trying to hide it.

Barbara Bush has been training for her new job as long as her husband has been prepping for his. The third of four children of a father who worked his way up the ladder to become president of the McCall Corp., which among other things owned McCall's magazine, and a mother happy to entertain and garden in suburban Rye, Barbara attended public and private schools. She finished at Ashley Hall, a South Carolina prep school where neglecting to wear white gloves was virtually a punishable offense. At a party in Greenwich, Conn., during Christmas break her senior year, she met George Bush, recently graduated from Andover. A generic dancer -- she complains that whatever the tempo, he does the fox-trot -- George asked her to sit out a waltz. They sat down and fell in love. The two became engaged that summer in Kennebunkport. It was a secret engagement, Bush says, meaning "the German and Japanese high commands weren't aware of it." But after Bush was shot down over the Pacific in September 1944, Barbara dropped out of Smith in her sophomore year to marry him at the First Presbyterian Church in Rye. "I married the first man I ever kissed," she says. "When I tell this to my children, they just about throw up."

After Bush graduated from Yale in 1948, the couple packed up their Studebaker and with their son George headed west to make their way in the oil fields of Texas. The first stop was Odessa, and a one-bedroom apartment where they shared a bathroom with a mother-daughter team of prostitutes. Then it was Midland, where Bush would make a small fortune by Texas standards. After moving to Houston in 1958, he sold his stake in Zapata Off-Shore in 1966 for $1 million. While in Texas, Barbara suffered her biggest losses. In 1949 her mother died in a freak accident: her father, trying to keep a cup of coffee from spilling off the dashboard, lost control of the car. Then one day in the spring of 1953 the Bushes' second child, Robin, 3, woke up feeling too tired to go out to play. The doctors diagnosed leukemia and gave her two weeks to live. She hung on eight months, with Barbara, whose hair began turning white, sitting by the bedside at Memorial Hospital in New York City and Bush commuting on weekends. Friends say they handed their grief back and forth, acting alternately as mourner and supporter. Barbara says, "George held me tight and wouldn't let me go. You know, 70% of the people who lose children get divorced because one doesn't talk to the other. He did not allow that." By then they had the two boys, George, born in 1946, and Jeb, in 1953. Three more children in quick succession -- Neil, 34, Marvin and Dorothy, 29 (all her children, she emphasizes, were planned) -- helped ease the pain.

There would be two terms for Bush in Congress, from 1967 to 1971, a lost race for the Senate, and a stint at the U.N. in 1971 before Barbara developed her public persona. Until then she was so shy she once cried over having to speak to the Houston Garden Club. Sunk deep in diapers and dishes for so long, she lacked confidence. "George was off on a trip doing all these exciting things," she said, "and I'm sitting home with these absolutely brilliant children who say one thing a week of interest." By contrast, when Bush was appointed U.S. envoy to China in 1974, she became an important part of the enterprise. For the first time without car pools and PTA meetings, she could give everything to the post. She loved the challenge of breaking out of the small foreigners' enclave in Beijing into the prohibited city around them, riding bikes everywhere, practicing Tai Chi, studying Chinese, breaking a long-standing legation taboo by playing tennis with foreign officials of lesser rank.

After China, the return to Washington, where Bush would head up the CIA, was something of a letdown. Barbara went from being included in everything to being shut out. "Why would he tell me any secrets," she joked, "when he says I begin every sentence with 'Don't tell George I told you this, but . . .' ?"

Living over the store as First Couple, the two will once again be spending a lot of time together. Barbara will not have to find a cause since she already has so many, in part as a result of events in her own life. Her son Neil's dyslexia first got her interested in fighting illiteracy. In 1984 she wrote a book, C. Fred's Story, a surprisingly wry look at Washington life as told by her first dog, after publisher Nelson Doubleday assured her it would be a good way to promote her literacy efforts. C. Fred could have been a disaster, but Barbara's wit and candor made it work. "I didn't have to squeeze it out of her. There was no ghostwriter," says editor Lisa Drew. "And it came in on time." The book sold 15,000 copies; Barbara donated her share of the profits to literacy charities.

Robin's leukemia got Barbara involved in medical activities. She has been on the board of Atlanta's Morehouse School of Medicine since 1983, and she spearheaded a $15 million fund-raising drive there. Years ago, quietly, Barbara befriended a woman at a Washington hospice and went to see her every week for several years until she died. She went to Atlanta during a spate of murders of children to comfort the grieving mothers. For more than 30 years, she has visited cancer wards at Christmastime to play with children -- her way of honoring Robin.

Barbara will probably never sit in on Cabinet meetings a la Rosalynn Carter or get people fired, as Nancy did. But a spousal "Dear, I wouldn't do that if I were you," delivered with a raised eyebrow, can often defeat a stack of position papers. During Bush's postelection vacation, he was asked whether he had received any advice about his new job. He smiled broadly and pointed to his wife, standing nearby in tennis shoes and sweats. Barbara raised her eyebrows and said, "Just kidding." Replied Bush: "No, she's not."

Long before President Bush begins his official day by conferring with top aides or national-security advisers, he will already have had his first briefing of the day -- in bed. Each morning, as they have for years, the Bushes awake to country music early -- about "5 and change," says Marvin -- and take coffee, juice and the papers in bed while they watch the news shows. Together they discuss the hot news of the day, and she weighs in on everything from policy to personnel. "He clears his mind by talking to her," said one aide who knows them both. "It helps him."

Barbara has been most influential on issues that concern her deeply or where her husband is behind the curve, like AIDS, the homeless, civil rights and education. In the late 1950s, she battled segregationist innkeepers who refused to let the family's black baby-sitter stay with them in the same hotel. She was instrumental in the appointment of the only black in Bush's Cabinet, Dr. Louis Sullivan, whom she came to know from her work at Morehouse.

It was Barbara's visits to AIDS hospitals in Harlem that nudged her husband into endorsing additional federal funds for fighting the disease when the Reagan Administration was still balking. Similarly, after an early debate when her husband brushed aside a question about the homeless with boiler plate about housing, Barbara exhorted him to make homelessness a campaign issue. "She really talked hard at him," said an aide, "and rode him until he got it right." Barbara's interest in children and literacy, meanwhile, helped Bush commit himself to being the "education President." "Every time he says 'Head Start,' that's Bar," says Sheila Tate, Bush's transition spokeswoman.

Barbara tries to mask her views where they differ from her husband's. Her preferred line on abortion is "I'm not going to tell you my opinion," a perhaps pointedly transparent admission of her pro-choice views, since if she agreed with Bush she would presumably say so. She disagreed behind the scenes with his hardball campaign tactics, masterminded by Jim Baker, Atwater, Roger Ailes and others. Late in the general-election campaign, aides sensed Barbara's unseen hand after speeches were rewritten in a softer tone. "There were drafts of speeches that went into the suite at night and came out the next morning with changes," an aide recalls.

Some staffers credit Barbara with getting George to suddenly pledge cleaner campaign tactics at a fund raiser last fall at Bob Hope's Hollywood spread. The announcement so stunned aides that they disappeared on purpose afterward. But Barbara wasn't all softball. When Bush was resisting advice to air the now famous "straddle ad" in New Hampshire that showed Iowa caucus victor Robert Dole flip-flopping on taxes, Barbara finally chimed in, "I don't see anything wrong with that ad." It ran, and Bush took the state by 10 points.

She won't be guided by astrology, but, like Nancy Reagan, Barbara will take control of her husband's schedule when he begins to suffer, as she did on the eve of the election in November. As Michael Dukakis mounted a last-minute "double red-eye," flying nearly coast to coast and back again on election eve, Bush's handlers argued for a similar marathon. But Barbara put her foot down. "People are going to vote the way they're going to vote," she said. "We're going to Texas."

No First Lady escapes microscopic scrutiny, and before the new family pictures are hung in the second-floor family quarters at the White House, Barbara Bush is likely to offend someone or other, perhaps for her informality, perhaps for her patrician noblesse oblige. Yet First Ladies are more than the sum of their good works. They offer a glimpse into the heart of a President -- if she loves him, he can't be all that bad -- and they often reflect the culture of the times. After eight years of new-money flash and glitz, of appearances over substance, of friends over family, Barbara Bush's unspoken message may be as important as anything she may do: there is honor in * motherhood; it is O.K. to be a size 14; a lined face is the price of living; and growing old is nothing to get frantic about. No small contribution, that.