It was supposed to be the familiar sort of First Lady event, a polite “drop-by” at a San Antonio, Texas Boys and Girls Club, but Barbara Bush had a knack for spiking the photo-op and sending the photographers into glee.
So, on February 26, 1992, during the presidential primary season when her husband was seeking a second term as President, the First Lady walked through the hall to “grip-and-grin” with a tidy lineup of middle-school students gathered there.
Until she spied a pool table.
She couldn’t help challenging a twelve-year old standing nearby. And once the First Lady and Tyrone Darden faced off, it set the cameras gnashing and flashing.
Whether it was because she didn’t want to beat a kid or because she realized he would beat her, she stopped after a few hits and told him “You won.”
Not so fast, Mrs. Bush, the student countered, she was the victor. “I let her win,” he quipped with equal media savvy. “I’m a better pool player.”
It proved not to be Barbara Bush’s first time in the pool hall, however, especially during a presidential campaign.
Four years earlier, she’d gained a few points during a stop at a Cranston, Rhode Island senior center against an older guy – but again quit while she was ahead.
It was again, perhaps, good politics.
If playing pool somehow seemed out of character with the persona of Barbara Bush in pearls and polka-dot dresses, she recognized it was all the more reason to try her hand and be photographed at it.
Getting behind the eight-ball might suggest she wasn’t entirely the dynastic Yankee matron she’d been cast as by the media.
And certainly few First Ladies were more eager to deflate their own ego with self-deprecation than Mrs. Bush.
If she couldn’t always help herself from unleashing her prickly perspective when prompted in media interviews, she rarely missed the chance to laugh at herself.
“My mail tells me that a lot of fat, white-haired old ladies are tickled pink,” she snapped when a reporter gushed over her popularity.
To be able to repeatedly pull this off before the national media as successfully as she did, however, required a resonance of authenticity.
Barbara Bush was always willing to shake people’s perceptions drawn from her staid appearance and step up to the plate, even literally – as when she stood the pitcher’s mound in high heels and cocktail dress to toss out the first ceremonial ball of the Texas Rangers’ season, a favor to her son the future President who was then a co-owner of the team.
All of this helped earn this seemingly predictable of First Ladies a reputation for unpredictability – even though it was an element she fought against.
Mrs. Bush admitted to repressing her instinct to bluntly divulge her opinion on policy issues (such as being pro-choice and pro-gun control) when it conflicted with that of the President.
Her acute media savvy forced her to do so, however, knowing that her ultimately individual personal view would garner headlines which overrode news coverage of her husband’s important statements and decisions.
This produced a bit of the “Betty Ford Affect,” where those who might politically oppose the President’s policies nevertheless held highly favorably opinions of his wife. Her skill in the pool hall and astounding high approval rating, however, failed to produce enough of an edge in the 1992 presidential election to help re-elect her husband.
When her eldest son George W. Bush became President in 2001, it didn’t quite put Barbara Bush in a league of her own but even better – in league with Abigail Adams, the only other wife of a president who became the mother of another.
His election put her back in the news but this time she had reason to keep her opinions to herself.
On the eve of President George W. Bush’s order of the invasion of Iraq, his mother spontaneously quipped that “why should we hear about body bags and deaths.”
The words were snipped out of a larger context in which the former First Lady was arguing to Diane Sawyer of ABC News that the media was indulging in wild speculation about worst-case scenario casualties; it was not a statement of not caring about who died in war. but it proved enormously unpopular.
Many also angrily interpreted her reactive but truthfully disjointed remark about the speed with which the city of Houston managed to accommodate its Astrodome auditorium with emergency supplies as a sudden refuge center for victims of New Orleans’ Hurricane Katrina transported there.
Barbara Bush still make headlines. Earlier this year she bluntly disagreed with the opinion of her son former President George W. Bush, during his presidential library dedication, saying her second son, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, should not seek the presidency. “We’ve had enough Bushes,” she snapped.
She also dismissed any viability for national office of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
And while the 87 year old former First Lady left the pool halls twenty years ago and passed on skydiving with her husband on two benchmark birthdays, the Babs bravado burst back to shoot hoops eighteen months ago with the sporting trio known as “Dude Perfect,” as seen in this video:
- George H.W. Bush Is Witness At Same-Sex Wedding Of Friends (npr.org)
- Barbara Bush speaks with Briarwood students (sfgate.com)
- Former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush Call Greta (foxnewsinsider.com)