Candid, Devoted to Family : Barbara Bush Brings Own Style to Role of First Lady

Times Staff Writer

There’s a new First Lady on the way, and she is different.

“I tell you,” said Barbara Bush, “my mail tells me that a lot of fat, white-haired, wrinkled ladies are tickled pink.”

Americans of many shapes and sizes may be tickled when they encounter the new, down-to-earth First Lady who laughs at her imperfections and talks as if she is surrounded by old friends.

In addition to her sense of humor, Barbara Bush has a serious side that is fiercely devoted to her husband, her family and the issue of literacy. Having stood by George Bush while he was in Congress, the CIA and the vice president’s mansion, Barbara Bush is the ultimate Washington insider and will be the first President’s wife in modern memory to glide into the title of First Lady supremely self-assured. Her candor and energy already have prompted comparisons to Eleanor Roosevelt.


“I wish you wouldn’t say Eleanor Roosevelt,” Mrs. Bush, 63, said in an interview. “I grew up in a household that really detested her.”

Barbara Bush says what she thinks--a practice that lands her in occasional trouble. As First Lady she is going to try not to overstep the bounds of propriety and be accused of wielding too much influence, as both Nancy Reagan and Rosalynn Carter were.

“I know people say that I’m outspoken, but I’m never going to speak out on issues,” she told a group of reporters. “Don’t sit around under bushes waiting for it because I’m not going to do it.”

Having said that, Mrs. Bush went on to discuss literacy, homelessness, AIDS, working mothers, first ladies and her relationship with her husband.


Mrs. Bush is “very candid” about telling her husband what’s on her mind. “That’s why we do so well,” she said. “I don’t have to talk to his staff. I talk to him.”

Watched Reagan’s Schedule

Nancy Reagan was in constant touch with a high-ranking member of President Reagan’s staff and was especially watchful of his schedule, concerned that his staff was working him too hard. Will Barbara Bush have similar veto power over George Bush’s schedule?

“Wait a minute!” Mrs. Bush said. “If I think George is being overworked I am certainly going to complain. That’s a normal thing to do. I’ll complain to him, his doctor, his scheduler, anyone who will listen.”

Mrs. Bush will be a visible, vocal First Lady. In the first 100 days of the new Administration, Mrs. Bush said she will announce the formation of a foundation that will give grants to programs that deal with illiteracy and the family.

“I’m vitally interested in . . . making America literate,” she said. “I’ve really evolved my way around to literacy in the family, particularly young mothers with children.

“I would work through the private sector, with maybe public-private partnerships. But I don’t lobby George Bush and I don’t lobby the federal government.”

Mrs. Bush “respected almost all” of the first ladies but reserves special admiration for Pat Nixon and Betty Ford.


Praises First Ladies

“I thought Pat Nixon was one of the most courageous, loyal women I’ve ever known,” said Mrs. Bush. “I admire Betty Ford enormously. I admire her almost more now than then. She’s in great pain and goes around the country and works for arthritis and drug abuse programs.”

Although literacy will be her primary focus, Mrs. Bush said she will not be a one-issue First Lady.

“I’m going to work for homelessness and I’m very concerned about AIDS. AIDS is a major interest of mine,” she said. “I would say both of those would be better if more Americans could read and write and comprehend.

“If you’re going to talk about teen-age pregnancy, I would talk about that. I’m going to tell you about illiteracy making an enormous difference in talking these young men and women into finishing high school.”

Mrs. Bush said she is for equal rights, but not the equal rights amendment.

“I’m not against it or for it,” she said. “I’m not talking about it.”

Quit College to Wed


Mrs. Bush--then Barbara Pierce--cut short her college education 44 years ago to marry George Bush and be a full-time mother. She has never regretted the decision.

“If I had (regretted it) I would have gone back to school,” she said. “George would not have kept me from going back. And I think people who tell you they have regrets are dumb.”

Reflecting on the changes in women’s lives, Mrs. Bush said she is “not critical” of women who work. “I have daughters who work,” she said, referring to both her daughter, Dorothy LeBlond, and her four daughters-in-law. “I don’t think it’s easy but I think they do it very well. I don’t question women working. I just think it’s a harder row to hoe. I think you have to be very carefully balanced if you have your children in day care.”

Concern for family is a theme sounded often by both George and Barbara Bush. They have five children and 10 grandchildren. Another child, Robin, died at age 3 of leukemia, a tragedy that severely tested Mrs. Bush. The family spends a great deal of time together and its other members will be frequent visitors at the White House.

On George Bush’s first night as President, 28 family members will sleep over at the White House. After Eunice Shriver told Mrs. Bush that John F. Kennedy’s children were photographed on the Lincoln bed their first night there, Mrs. Bush decided to bring her camera and have the Bush family do the same thing. George Bush’s ailing mother will stay in the Queen’s bed, and all the Bush women will parade in to show her their inaugural ball gowns.

Will Continue Role

Asked about her role as First Lady, Mrs. Bush replies, “I see it exactly as my role has been before, truthfully: running the house, listening to my children’s problems, passing them on to George if they’re important.

“I think we’ll entertain an enormous amount because that’s what George does now. If you want to know what my goal is going to be, it’s to see that George Bush gets out of the White House.”

Since Election Day, the Bushes have been spotted all over town at suburban Chinese restaurants, movie theaters and different churches. They hope to stay out and about more than the Reagans, who curtailed their activities after the President was shot in March of 1981.

The way a First Lady entertains is often viewed as her personal signature, but Mrs. Bush does not feel she needs to make a statement about herself with her White House parties.

When Mrs. Bush entertains, “We’re going to serve pork rinds,” she said.

That was a joke, referring to the publicity given Bush during the campaign when he said that his love for pork rinds--fried, spiced pig skin--was an example of how unstuffy he was.

“I am so sick (of pork rinds). I wish George had never said he liked them,” said Mrs. Bush. “You know he got them by the caseload.”

Follows Reagan’s Lead

When Mrs. Bush plans a state dinner, “I told Nancy (Reagan), and this is true, I’m going to say to the White House, ‘Ditto. Just do what she did.’ It’s perfect,” said Mrs. Bush.

The next First Lady acknowledged that in some other matters, she and Nancy Reagan “do things differently.” Among those things is how they dress. Mrs. Reagan was a heroine of the high fashion industry but drew criticism for borrowing more than $1 million worth of clothes from designers and not reporting them in financial disclosure statements or income tax filings.

Mrs. Bush, famous for her triple string of fake pearls, will not be immersed in high fashion, nor will she accept dresses from designers.

“I did accept a dress once,” said Mrs. Bush, “and I declared it and George paid taxes on it, or whatever you do. I bought my clothes.”

The clothing demands on first ladies “are enormous,” Mrs. Bush admitted, but she would not borrow dresses as First Lady “just because we’ve never done that.”

Sees Downsides

Although she clearly is looking forward to her new role, Mrs. Bush admitted that “there are enormous downsides to being First Lady. Nancy felt besieged at times. I think she was criticized for things she shouldn’t have been. I honestly think if someone raises money privately to buy china for the White House the American public ought to say, ‘Thank you,’ instead of being critical.”

Loss of privacy and pressure on family members are also concerns of Mrs. Bush. Two of their sons, George and Jeb, have turned down business opportunities that might be perceived as conflicts of interest.

“These are things they would have been offered anyway,” Mrs. Bush said. “That’s too bad they have to turn down things . . . they’re bright and they’re hard workers.”

Packing up all their belongings and marking them for the White House, Camp David, storage, Kennebunkport or museums have been “agony” the last few weeks, she said.

“All the pictures we borrowed from museums go back. If we don’t end up with a museum piece at the White House and our junk in the museum I’ll be surprised,” she said. Despite the confusion, “This is enormously exciting, this move, for us,” she said. “It’s wrong to do things in life and not enjoy them.”