Barbara Bush: The end of an era for the Republican Party?

FILE - In a Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, file photo, former first lady Barbara Bush listens to a patient's question during a visit to the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital at Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Barbara Bush has been described as America's grandmother and the matriarch of the Bush dynasty. The wife of the 40th vice president and 41st president George H.W. Bush and the mother of the 43rd president George W. Bush and Florida's former governor Jeb Bush, Barbara Bush's influence on politics spanned the modern Republican Party.

Mrs. Bush's passing on April 17 marks the end of a long life of service and sacrifice and the death of the last Republican first lady of "the Greatest Generation." Her death also comes at a time when the Republican Party has changed dramatically from the one her husband and son led.

Mark Updegrove is a historian and author of "The Last Republicans," a biography of the two presidents Bush published one year after President Donald Trump won the 2016 election. In writing the book, Updegrove spent hours interviewing both former presidents as well as Barbara Bush each of whom he said was "dismayed" at the trajectory of the country and the Republican Party.

In an interview Wednesday, he noted, "We're certainly seeing a very important American figure fade from the stage." From her role as second lady in the Ronald Reagan administration to first lady and then first mother, Barbara Bush helped shape the Republican Party over decades.

Updegrove noted a "marked difference" in the values of the Bushes' Republican Party and today's Trump-led GOP. "You're seeing a dearth of compassion."

Bush Sr. ran a campaign for a "kinder gentler nation." George W. Bush stumped on a platform of "compassionate conservatism." Barbara Bush was very much in keeping with that ethos, Updegrove said, which translated into the two presidents' approach to the office.

"She was a very compassionate, caring person who saw the value of civility in our public discourse. We're certainly not seeing that today," he added.

Bush Sr. admitted in an interview with Updegrove that he thought Donald Trump was a "blowhard" and "driven by a certain ego." The author told Circa that while he did not include it in his book, Barbara Bush "reflected those sentiments" expressed by her husband.

"It's not surprising," he added. "Donald Trump is anathema in terms of the values George Bush has stood for throughout his entire life."

Jane Hampton Cook, author of "The Faith of America's First Ladies," first met George and Barbara Bush at the launch of the international center at the George Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University and later worked in the White House as President George W. Bush's webmaster. She said the former first lady's death is part of the "the passing of that World War II, public service generation."

"They felt as part of their culture and upbringing that you serve," she said of Barbara and George Bush. "You establish yourself as a family and then you go and perform public service. That mentality may not be as strong as it used to be."

Cook believes one of Barbara Bush's greatest contributions was her character. Part of that was her uncanny ability to use humor to handle difficult situations.

Cook recalled the (infamous) incident in 1992, when President Bush got sick on the Japanese prime minister during a state dinner. "She had to step in and speak for him, impromptu," Cook said. Mrs. Bush joked that her husband's illness must have been the result of an earlier tennis match with Japan's heads of state. George Bush lost.

"Everybody laughed and it diffused the tension," Cook said. "She learned to laugh at life along the way. That was a secret ingredient for Barbara Bush and her success."

That quality also helped when the first lady was hosting parties at the White House, bringing Republicans and Democrats to the table. "She's from an almost forgotten era of bipartisan politics," said Andrew Och, historian and so-called "First Ladies Man." He told Circa, "They didn't care what party you were in, they knew that there was compromise and work to be done together."

Politically, Barbara Bush is the only woman in American history to live to see both her husband and son become president. Abigail Adams died before her son John Quincy Adams took office. As such, she was in a unique position to counsel, support and defend two U.S. presidents.

"She was enormously influential," said Updegrove. The public saw a grandmotherly figure, draped in pearls with a sharp tongue and disarming wit. "Behind the scenes, she was her husband's staunchest supporter and protector and, I think, an important political adviser as he navigated the very difficult waters of presidential politics."

She revisited her role as protector when her son George W. Bush took office. In an interview with Fox News, Bush said described his mother in loving terms, saying she kept her sense of humor and sharp wit until the end. "It's the end of a beautiful life," he said. He went on to describe her as "warm and wonderful—until you got out of line, then she wasn't too warm and wonderful."

Barbara Bush has been described as an independent thinker, "tough as nails." Her children gave her the nickname of "the enforcer" for her directness and strong personality and outsiders were exposed to a woman fiercely protective of her family.

In 1992, a former political associate mused how President Bush "has gotten a whole lot of mileage out of letting Bar be thought of as the heavy," according to reporter Marjorie Williams. Bush Sr. was known to warn reporters against unfair coverage, saying, "Look out, the Silver Fox is really mad at you."

Despite her illness, in her later years she was regularly seen pushing her husband in his wheelchair. "She is the greater woman behind this great man, literally and physically," Och said. Her legacy, however, was public service and the relentless promotion of childhood and adult literacy as well as children's health.

"When she was needed by her country and her family she stood up in a genuine, humble and effective way," he continued. "She was one of our most productive and prolific post-White House first ladies."

From the time George and Barbara Bush left the White House in 1993, they raised more than $1 billion for charitable causes. Barbara Bush is the first lady with the most libraries, medical facilities and memorials named after her.

That part of Barbara Bush's legacy is missing from the White House today, Updegrove noted. "The Bushes, they stand for putting country above one's self, for putting service to others above oneself."

President Donald Trump ordered flags to be flown at half-staff until Mrs. Bush is laid to rest. Her funeral will be held Saturday. She will be laid to rest on the grounds of the George H.W. Bush Library and Museum at Texas A&M University.

President Trump has not confirmed his attendance at the funeral. First Lady Melania Trump will attend, as will Barack and Michelle Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

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