The Silver Fox

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

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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 . . .' ?"

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