The Silver Fox

And now for something completely different: a down-to-earth First Lady

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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.

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