Barbara Bush remembered at funeral for her grit, grace and humor
Barbara Pierce Bush was remembered Saturday for the strength of character and wit that made her one of the most popular first ladies in U.S. history, as she was laid to rest by the political clan she built, including the husband and son she helped reach the presidency.
“She was our teacher and role model on how to live a life with purpose and meaning,” son and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in an emotional eulogy, recalling his mother’s final days. “She was beautiful until the day she died.”
Saturday’s packed service at the family church in Houston also featured eulogies by two others Barbara Bush had handpicked: her longtime friend Susan Baker, wife of former Secretary of State James A. Baker; and historian Jon Meacham, who wrote a 2015 biography of her husband, President George H.W. Bush.
Meacham noted that Bush is the second woman in U.S. history to have been the wife of one president and the mother of another, George W. Bush. The only other woman to have played that role was Abigail Adams, whose husband, John, was the second president, and her son John Quincy Adams was the sixth.
Baker recalled how Bush offered support and guidance during her early days in Washington, and lived by example.
“The most important yardstick of your success will be how you treat people,” Bush told her, not just family and friends, “but strangers you meet along the way.”
George H.W. Bush nodded as Baker spoke. He smiled at times at family stories, but also grew tearful. Daughter Dorothy “Doro” Bush Koch sat at his side, rubbing his back.
The service also featured emotional readings by Koch and Bush’s grandchildren, or “the grands,” as she called them, including Jenna Bush Hager and her twin, Bush’s namesake. Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Bush’s other grandsons served as pallbearers.
Nancy Sosa, mother-in-law of Bush’s granddaughter Ellie Sosa, arrived for the service from Newport Beach on Saturday. She came wearing a pearl choker in honor of Bush, who became her friend during summers in Maine.
“When she spoke, people listened,” Sosa recalled, yet, “she didn’t want to worry much about her looks.”
The last time she met Bush for lunch last year, they talked about the possibility of a great-grandchild and how difficult it can be to choose a first name.
“It is not,” Bush quipped. “Barbara Sosa is a perfectly good name.”
Sosa laughed at the memory.
“She was feisty, with a great sense of humor … one of a kind,” said friend Susan Biddle, also in pearls, before the pair boarded a shuttle bus from the parking lot to the church.
About 1,500 guests attended the invitation-only service at the family’s longtime church, St. Martin’s Episcopal, a lofty Gothic landmark lined with massive stained glass windows in Houston’s tony Galleria area.
President Trump did not attend the funeral but tweeted from Florida on Saturday that he was “Heading to the Southern White House to watch the Funeral Service of Barbara Bush. First Lady Melania has arrived in Houston to pay our respects. Will be a beautiful day!
“My thoughts and prayers are with the entire Bush family. In memory of First Lady Barbara Bush, there is a remembrance display located at her portrait in the Center Hall of the @WhiteHouse,” Trump added.
Melania Trump also released a statement after the service.
“Today the world paid tribute to a woman of indisputable character and grace,” she said. “It was my honor to travel to Houston to give my respects to Barbara Bush and the remarkable life she led as a mother, wife, and fearless First Lady. My sincerest thoughts and prayers continue to be with George H.W., and the entire Bush family.”
Also in attendance were former President Clinton, Hillary Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea; former President Obama and his wife, Michelle; members of Congress and a host of relatives of former presidents including Johnson, Kennedy and Nixon.
While those with security details proceeded directly to St. Martin’s, Bush might have appreciated that the rest — including former Cabinet members, ambassadors, CEOs, sports stars and socialites — were directed to board a fleet of Houston city buses that served as shuttles to the service.
Among those taking the bus were Bush’s nephew and former “Today Show” reporter Billy Bush; former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly; former U.S. Solicitor Gen. Kenneth Starr; longtime GOP strategist Karl Rove; tennis star Chris Evert; golfer Phil Mickelson and actor Chuck Norris.
In another Bush-style no-nonsense twist, the A-list celebrities and Beltway power brokers found themselves seated on the bus beside rank-and-file members of the Bush staff, including longtime housekeeper Alicia Huizar.
Huizar, 75, worked for the Bushes for 20 years in Houston, and her mother worked for them for 50, she said. Huizar traveled with the couple, and although she speaks mostly Spanish, she said Bush understood.
“She was a beautiful person,” Huizar said.
So many members of former administrations returned for the service, it felt like “old home week,” said J. Steven Rhodes, former ambassador to Zimbabwe, who served as a domestic policy advisor to President George H.W. Bush.
Rhodes, who traveled from Los Angeles for the service, recalled how the Bushes once prank-called him from the White House at 5:30 a.m.: “Where are you? We’re waiting on you,” Barbara Bush said, then passed the phone to her husband, who let him in on the joke before asking for advice on a speech.
“They treated staff like family,” Rhodes said.
Rove said that he met with George W. Bush in recent days and that the former president has received “great comfort.”
“It says a lot that this is a celebration,” Rove said of the service. “This is a family of great faith.”
Barbara Bush, 92, who suffered from heart and respiratory problems, died Tuesday after deciding not to seek further treatment following a series of hospitalizations. Her funeral featured tight security, including Secret Service checkpoints because of the star-studded guest list. But the day before, the public was welcomed at the church to pay their respects.
As 6,200 mourners filed by Bush’s silver casket — including women wearing her favorite color, blue, and her trademark fake pearls — they got a surprise. Her husband, now 93, arrived in a wheelchair to greet them after seeing video of the crowds.
The couple had been married for 73 years and were a popular sight around Houston, energizing survivors of Hurricane Harvey and fellow fans at Astros baseball games during last year’s championship season (one CEO seated nearby noticed Bush keeping score).
While Bush made Houston her adopted hometown, she was a Northeastern blue blood by birth, and her funeral service was presided over by ministers from both Houston and Kennebunkport, Maine, where the couple hosted family during the summer at a sprawling compound.
Craig Denekas traveled to Saturday’s funeral from Portland, Maine, where he had worked with Bush’s family foundation on literacy. Bush championed the cause, volunteering after her second child, a girl nicknamed Robin, died of leukemia in 1953 at age 3, and focusing on literacy as first lady.
“It’s a national effort that she inspired. She touched many people worldwide,” Denekas said.
As first lady from 1989 to 1993, Bush’s popularity often rivaled her husband’s. That stemmed at least in part from her self-deprecating humor, embodied by her three-strand choker of unapologetically fake pearls. While her prematurely white hair earned her a family nickname, “the Silver Fox,” it also inspired many to view her as “America’s grandmother.”
After the service, Bush’s family followed the pallbearers out, with George W. Bush pushing his father in a wheelchair, former First Lady Laura Bush at his side, stopping to shake mourners’ hands.
Then the family led a motorcade about a hundred miles northwest to College Station, home of Texas A&M University and George H.W. Bush’s presidential library. There, the former first lady was driven down George Bush Drive, then Barbara Bush Drive before ultimately being laid to rest, near a brook surroundedby trees, beside her late daughter.
12:15 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details that include statements from many in attendance, including First Lady Melania Trump.
This article was originally published at 11:15 a.m.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.