It was the longest – and most moving – love story in presidential history. When George Bush Snr died late on Friday night at the age of 94, it came just eight months after the death of his beloved wife Barbara.
The romance between ‘Poppy’ and his ‘Darling Bar’ – their affectionate nicknames for each other – had endured for 73 years and they had always hated being apart.
As one family friend noted last night, George is finally ‘back where he wanted to be – by her side’.
When George Bush Snr died late on Friday night at the age of 94, it came just eight months after the death of his beloved wife Barbara (pictured together at their wedding in 1945)
They had affectionate nicknames for each other – he was ‘Poppy’ and she was ‘Darling Bar’. The couple, pictured in 2006, were married for 73 years and always hated being apart
This deep and lasting affection is captured in a series of touching love letters released over the years, a lifetime of correspondence which began shortly after the pair met at a Christmas dance in Connecticut.
Barbara Pierce, the daughter of a publisher, was then a 16-year-old schoolgirl while George, 17, was also still at school and training to be a Navy fighter pilot.
In his autobiography, the man who would become the 41st President of the United States recalled being ‘immediately captivated’ by the pretty girl in the green and red dress and begging a friend to introduce them.
Their deep and lasting affection was captured in a series of touching love letters released over the years. Here, they’re pictured in the 1960s
Barbara Pierce was a 16-year-old schoolgirl when she met George, 17, who was also still at school and training to be a Navy fighter pilot. Bush and his bride Barbara are seen at their wedding in 1945 in Rye, New York
President Ronald Reagan and then-Vice President George Bush, accompanied by wives Nancy and Barbara, join hands after the President endorses Bush’s run for the Presidency in 1988
He asked her to dance but when the band struck up a waltz, the pair sat it out because, as he would later admit, ‘I didn’t know how to waltz. We sat out several more after that, talking and getting to know each other. It was a storybook meeting.’ She would later say: ‘I married the first man I ever kissed. When I tell this to my children, they just about throw up.’
Those early years were fraught with danger as well as passion.
When George qualified as a pilot at 18, he immediately enlisted to fight in the Second World War. At the time, he was the youngest fighter pilot in the US military, and famously named three of his planes after Barbara.
The handwritten letters home chronicled their passion and longing. For George in particular, ‘those letters were everything’.
Great statesman, patriot and war hero ‘had no fear of death’
Fformer US President George H. W. Bush’s granddaughter last night told how he had no fear of death because he’d be ‘reunited with the people I’ve lost’.
Recalling their final conversation, Jenna Bush Hager said: ‘I had the opportunity to talk with my grandpa about the afterlife. He answered without any hesitation, “Yes, I think about it. I used to be afraid. I used to be scared of dying. I used to worry about death. But now in some ways I look forward to it.”
‘And I started crying. I managed to choke out, “Well, why? What do you look forward to?” And he said, “Well, when I die I’m going to be reunited with the people that I’ve lost.” ’
Mrs Bush Hager spoke as tributes poured in for America’s 41st president who died at his Texas home on Friday – eight months after his beloved wife Barbara passed away.
Bush was president from 1989 to 1993, a period which saw the final days of the Cold War, the break-up of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War. He was a father of six – including son George W. Bush, who served as the 43rd president – grandfather of 17 and a great-grandfather of eight.
In a statement after the death of his father, who suffered from a form of Parkinson’s disease, George W. Bush said: ‘After 94 remarkable years our dear dad has died. [He] was a man of the highest character and the best dad a son or daughter could ask for.’
President Donald Trump, who has been publicly critical of the Bush family, praised Bush’s ‘essential authenticity, disarming wit and unwavering commitment to faith, family and country’.
Bill Clinton, who once described Bush as ‘the father I never had’, recalled a letter left in the Oval Office for him by Bush after losing the hard-fought 1992 election that read: ‘When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that too. Your success now is a country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.’
Theresa May described him as ‘a great statesman and a true friend of our country’ and Barack Obama said that America had ‘lost a patriot and humble servant’.
Bush will be buried beside his wife and daughter, Robin, who died of leukaemia aged three in 1953. Born on June 12, 1924, in Milton, Massachusetts, Bush was the son of a steel magnate. Aged 18 he became the youngest fighter pilot in the US Navy and flew 58 combat missions in the Second World War and survived being shot down by the Japanese.
After marrying Barbara in 1945, he made a fortune in the oil industry before entering politics, first as a congressman, then as head of the CIA and vice-president. His single-term presidency was dominated by the collapse of communism and the first Gulf War.
In one, written shortly after their engagement in December 1943, he said: ‘I love you precious, with all my heart, and to know that you love me, means my life. How often I have thought about the immeasurable joy that will be ours some day.’
Barbara responded, saying she was ‘excited’ about their impending wedding but was also ‘scared to death’. She joked: ‘If you hear a big noise up there don’t worry, it’s just my knees knocking.’
Yet the wedding so nearly didn’t happen. In 1944, George was shot down and spent several hours floating in the Pacific before being rescued by a passing US submarine. Two crewmates shot down with him were later tortured by the Japanese.
George said: ‘It made me question why had I been spared and what did God have in mind for me.’
The couple wed shortly after his return home in January 1945 and set up home in Odessa, Texas, where George set about making a fortune in the oil business. Barbara, meanwhile, began bringing up the couple’s six children, the eldest of whom, George Walker Bush, would follow his father into the White House.
But there was heartache when, in 1953, their second child Pauline – known as Robin – died of leukaemia before her fourth birthday.
Barbara later said: ‘I was combing her hair and holding her hand. I saw that little body, I saw her spirit go. She was quiet and gentle and had lovely blonde curls. She’s like an angel to me, she’s not a sadness or a sorrow.’
It affected them deeply and the couple donated her body to cancer research.
Brutally honest and the ‘backbone’ of the Bush family, Barbara was the first to admit their marriage was, at times, a rollercoaster.She spoke of falling into a ‘black hole’ of depression in the 1970s while her husband was forging his career, first as a congressman then in influential political positions including United Nations ambassador, leader of the Republican party and CIA director. He would later serve two terms as Vice President under Ronald Reagan before becoming President himself in 1989.
In her autobiography Barbara blamed her depression on stress and hormonal changes, saying it became so severe ‘I feared I would deliberately crash my car’.
‘Night after night, George held me weeping in his arms while I tried to explain my feelings. I almost wonder why he didn’t leave me,’ she wrote.
For George, that was never an option. If Barbara was criticised as a ‘frumpy’ First Lady, George insisted ‘she was always the most beautiful girl in the world to me’. His attention, he claimed, never drifted.
‘She was the first and only love of my life,’ he said.
In a letter marking their 49th wedding anniversary in 1984, George wrote: ‘Will you marry me? Oops, I forget we did that 49 years ago. I was very happy on that day in 1945, but I’m even happier today. You have given me joy that few men know. I have climbed perhaps the highest mountain in the world but even that cannot hold a candle to being Barbara’s husband.’
Barbara forged a considerable reputation in her own right. Her favourite saying was: ‘I don’t fool around with his office and he doesn’t fool around with my household.’ And few doubted her.
‘The reason I made the most important decision of my life, to marry George Bush, is because he made me laugh,’ she told students at Wellesley College in 1990.
‘It’s true, sometimes we’ve laughed through our tears… but that shared laughter has been one of our strongest bonds.
‘At the end of your life, you will never regret… not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent.’ Together, George and Barbara forged a solid political dynasty and are survived by 17 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
They are in no doubt that Barbara’s death in April this year hastened George’s own departure.
During his mother’s funeral, their son Jeb – a former governor of Florida who ran unsuccessfully against Donald Trump for the Republican nomination – said: ‘Our family has had a front-row seat for the most amazing love story.’
He recalled the last time his mother was in hospital with bronchitis, in January 2017, when his father simultaneously developed pneumonia.
George H.W. Bush, America’s 41st president, died on Friday at his home in Houston age 94. He is seen above in 2013
‘I think dad got sick on purpose so he could be with her,’ he said. ‘He came into her room when she was sleeping and held her hand. His hair was standing straight up, he had on a mask to improve his breathing, he was wearing a hospital gown – he looked like hell.
‘Mum opened her eyes and said, “My God, George, you are devastatingly handsome.” ’
Presidential historian Jon Meacham recalled talking to the couple at their summer home in Maine in 2017. The conversation turned to George’s wartime heroics. Barbara had echoed her husband’s own words, saying: ‘You must have been saved for a reason.’
The former President fell silent before pointing a finger across the table at his wife:
‘You,’ George said with a catch in his throat. ‘You were the reason.’
He’s proof the good guys can change the world
By Robin Renwick, British ambassador to the US 1991 – 95
George Bush was one of nature’s great gentlemen. As Ambassador, I would receive handwritten notes from him, thanking us for some show of support, leaving me wondering how on earth he had the time to do it all.
When I accompanied the families of British soldiers killed in the first Gulf War to the White House, Bush insisted on seeing them himself and doing what he could to comfort the stricken relatives personally.
He was a warm and amiable man. During the summer months, we’d have drinks on the White House balcony and he’d never fail to point out, with good humour, the scorch marks left by Admiral Cockburn and his British marines when they burnt down the White House in 1814.
But George Bush was not simply a politician, he was a truly great statesman and a great public servant who was particularly shrewd when it came to foreign affairs.
He goes down in history as having changed the world. His great achievements include his steady hand as the Soviet Union collapsed and in the reunification of Germany, as well as his role in guiding America out of the quagmire of the first Gulf War.
It is true that he was weaker on domestic affairs. Indeed one of his key associates once told me he was worried that ‘the President knew more about Kuwait than California’.
To many, he will be remembered as a somewhat patrician figure who had difficulty connecting with ordinary Americans in the way Reagan, his predecessor, had done.
EVEN so, George Bush made a greater and more positive mark on the world than his successors have done, including his son, George W. Bush. He was for example, determined to liberate Kuwait – and then to withdraw. He did not want to get bogged down in Iraq.
When his son, as President, threatened military action in 2003 George senior was publicly loyal, but I know that in private he had tried and failed to dissuade him from invading.George Bush was equally loyal to his closest political allies and friends.
His chances of re-election in 1992 would have been considerably improved if he’d replaced the hapless Dan Quayle as his running mate, for example. But Quayle begged him not to get rid of him, and George did not have the heart.
It was a mistake. But then, he did not expect to lose that election. He had been unable to believe that the American people would choose to elect Bill Clinton as their President and overlook his own considerable achievements and service to his country. He had, after all, been a fighter pilot in the Second World War.
George Bush was simply too much of a gentleman to put up too much opposition – and so became his own worst enemy.During the 1992 election campaign, we knew from the Clinton camp that they were dreading the moment when, in the Presidential debates, George Bush would almost certainly ask his opponent the hardest question of all: ‘What makes you think you are qualified to be commander in chief?’
But George, ever the man of honour, could not bring himself to ask it.
He was an admirer of his British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, although their styles were very different.
As Vice President, he had turned up to meet her at Chequers one weekend with his golf clubs, only to find himself embroiled in intense discussions of world affairs, with no pause for breath.
Colin Powell told me he was convinced that it was Mrs Thatcher’s meeting with Bush in Aspen – after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait – that had stiffened Bush’s resolve to oust him.
It was immediately following that meeting that Bush had famously declared that ‘this aggression will not stand’, causing Powell to accelerate the military preparations.
When Bush telephoned Thatcher to explain a short delay in taking action against Iraqi ships, she famously replied: ‘This is no time to go wobbly, George!’
The Bush team were sufficiently amused to start using this slogan among themselves.
But George Bush found a warmer bond with the gentlemanly John Major as Prime Minister after the 1990 General Election.
The President proved an extraordinarily kind and generous mentor to the new Prime Minister, and was rewarded with Major’s staunch support in the first Gulf War.
After his 1992 Election defeat, Major paid an emotional farewell visit at Camp David and, on the eve of his leaving office, we attended George Bush’s last dinner in the White House.
Bill Clinton did not do badly in the White House, but I could not feel that – in human terms – the better man had won.
America has just lost a great President.
Not Quite A Diplomat, the forthcoming memoir of Lord Renwick is published by Biteback, February 2019.