Although recently deceased first lady Barbara Bush never lived in Austin, she forged ties here during her husband’s two unsuccessful bids for the U.S. Senate (1964 and 1970) and during her son’s two terms as Texas governor (1995-2000).
In keeping with White House tradition, Bush kept in touch with former presidents and their families, and her long-standing relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s family formed another connection with Austin. She attended events at the LBJ Presidential Library as well as Lady Bird Johnson’s funeral services at Riverbend Centre in 2007.
“Generations of Johnsons have loved and respected Mrs. Bush,” said Luci Baines Johnson, younger daughter of President Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson. “She held us to high standards. There is a sense of fraternity, empathy and affection among our families. The world is a poorer placer without Barbara Bush.”
The wife of President George H.W. Bush and mother of President George W. Bush could be found in Austin during times of sharp crisis, as in November 2000 when the desperately close presidential election hung in the balance. During those long hours, Bush family members and friends hunkered down at the Governor’s Mansion. Barbara Bush coped with the stress by immersing herself in a needlepoint project while listening to an audiobook of a Sandra Brown novel through earphones.
She also returned to Austin during times of quiet triumph. In 2003, she spoke to a packed state Capitol during the Texas Book Festival, co-founded by first lady Laura Bush, to promote “Barbara Bush: A Memoir.” In 2012, she and Laura Bush headlined a First Ladies Summit at the LBJ Library.
Among Texas cities, Barbara Bush had the closest ties to Midland, where her husband broke into the oil business in the 1950s and their young family prospered, and certainly to Houston, the couple’s domestic and political base after 1959, and their permanent residence — along with Kennebunkport, Maine — since 1993.
“Her ties to Houston are much stronger” than those to Austin, said Billy Gammon, Austin businessman and close friend of George W. Bush. “She really didn’t have that much connection to Austin other than her daughter-in-law and grandchildren lived here.”
Mark K. Updegrove, presidential historian and president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation, has interviewed the Bush family extensively over the years. His most recent book is “The Last Republicans: Inside the Extraordinary Relationship between George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.”
“Barbara Bush was in a very small group, along with Abigail Adams, who was both the wife and the mother of a U.S. president,” Updegrove said. “But like Abigail Adams, she also made her own mark on our nation as one who was what her husband would call a ‘point of light.’ She not only championed volunteering but spent countless hours herself on causes like homelessness, AIDS, and her own personal passion, literacy.”
Lynda Johnson Robb, elder daughter of LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson, felt a special connection with Bush because they both championed reading and literacy.
“When I think of Barbara Bush, I smile,” Robb said. “Her candor was always refreshing, her grace was endless, her love of family never wavered, and she was always a true patriot. My family has been fortunate to know her, and we will always be grateful for her service to our country.”