Barbara Bush & Nancy Reagan: Their Contentious Relationship

Barbara Bush being welcomed by Nancy Reagan for the traditional tour of the White House family quarters conducted by the outgoing First Lady for the incoming. This image was later dubbed “clash of the plaids” by White House reporters who knew both women.

Barbara Bush had actually started out liking the color red, but when she was told that it was Nancy Reagan’s “color,” she was advised to take blue, a shade she so embraced as her own that “Bush Blue” became an official Color Association of the United States color.

20 Jan 1989, President and First Lady Bush escort former President and Mrs. Reagan to their helicopter at U.S. Capitol on Inauguration Day.

The feelings each woman had about the other have been wildly over exaggerated and neither ever expressed passionate dislike for the other. They were always essentially civil, friendly even. They were in each other’s presence hundreds of times, starting with Reagan’s nomination and election as the Republican president in 1980 and two terms in office until 1989, with George Bush as his vice president, followed by the latter’s four-year presidency. Still, despite their husbands forming the strongest and two contiguous Republican presidencies of the twentieth century, Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan never became friends.

The Reagans and Bushes, the women marked by their distinct color identity.

The friction between them is difficult to specifically pinpoint. It may have been rooted in not only essentially different political philosophies but personal insecurities. The Reagans represented a more libertarian western republicanism, while the Bushes were the old-school socially-liberal eastern seaboard branch. Some suggest that Mrs. Reagan felt intimidated by Mrs. Bush’s high society pedigree. Others believe Mrs. Bush felt she could never pull off as glitzy and glamorous a White House lifestyle as her predecessor.

When Reagan’s chief of staff Don Regan began usurping many prerogatives from the President, Nancy Reagan called Vice President Bush to stop him. Bush would not, so Nancy did it, but it left a lingering resentment on her part, considering Bush “too soft.” When word of this got back to Barbara Bush, her husband’s most vociferous defender, Nancy Reagan had earned the full measure of her enmity.

The Bushes and Reagans at the 1980 Republican convention, which sealed their fates together.

They had first met in 1968, being on the same plane headed to that year’s Republican Convention in Miami. As she noted in a letter to her husband, Barbara Bush wrote, “She is tiny and really a very lovely natural beauty.” Their physical difference may have hit an insecure spot for Barbara. She recalled a March 1979 gathering for what was initially represented as a press conference among the spouses of likely Republican presidential candidates in 1980. Instead, they weren’t allowed to speak, but asked to just repeatedly pose. “…in a beauty contest or best-dressed competition, I didn’t have a chance. The other wives were Nancy Reagan, Joy Baker…Jackie Fernandez and Elizabeth Dole.”

Barbara Bush ad Nancy Reagan made just one joint campaign event together, during the 1980 campaign on a visit to Baltimore.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, the two women made only one joint appearance together, in Baltimore during which Barbara recalled, “She was more than nice to me.” When they both arrived at the White House for the transition coffee with the outgoing Carters and Mondales, both women noticed that Rosalynn Carter spent the full forty-five minutes giving heartfelt goodbyes to the household staff. Nancy and Barbara were in accord on one thing: “…when we faced being in her position – in four or eight years – we would not drag it out like this.”

As the Administration began, with Nancy as First Lady and Barbara as Second Lady, the latter was careful to never overshadow the former. Still, tension seemed to just inevitably arise.

The President and Mrs. Reagan were dinner guests of Vice President and Mrs. Bush in the vice presidential mansion, where Reagan plays with the Bush dog in the hallway.

When controversy arose about Nancy Reagan’s new White House china in a time of economic recession, Barbara Bush publicly joked that, “Maybe she should have bought it one piece at a time.” It wasn’t appreciated.

The Bushes were never invited to the many private parties the Reagans hosted in the White House family quarters. Especially galling was when the Bushes were pointedly left off the guest list for the 1986 state dinner the Reagans hosted for Prince Charles and Princess Diana. On at least one occasion, the Bushes hosted the Reagans at a private dinner in the Vice Presidential mansion.

Still, Mrs. Bush lavishly praised Nancy Reagan’s refurnishing of the family quarters, “including modernizing the bathrooms and fixing faulty wiring. As her successor, I was eternally grateful to her for that.” And she had high praise for Nancy’s taste in entertaining and menus. As First Lady, Barbara Bush changed nothing. As she put it, “I never tried to out-Reagan the Reagans.”

As Second Lady and president of the Senate Spouses, Barbara Bush welcomed Nancy Reagan to an event, where the latter posed with Annie Glenn, wife of Ohio’s U.S. Senator John Glenn.

For her part, Nancy Reagan would state that Barbara Bush was lucky to have had eight years rehearsal as Second Lady, prepared to embrace the First Lady role with more experience. Barbara Bush suggested that sometimes Mrs. Reagan didn’t choose to see problems she created for herself. On one petty matter, the issue of Nancy Reagan’s genuine date of birth, Barbara Bush quipped, “…we really don’t know if Nancy Reagan is sixty-five or sixty-seven and she won’t tell.”

And Barbara Bush realized that her blunt manner could easily become abrasive.

Yet on just as many occasions, she stood up for the First Lady. She defended Nancy Reagan from the fallout of a critical novel about her authored by her daughter.

She insisted that the large photos of the Bushes on an official plane during the transition be changed back to those of the Reagans, “Somehow or other I do not think Nancy would be amused by Bush pictures all over the plane.”

A little later in the game than Mrs. Bush admittedly liked, Reagan finally endorsed his Vice Preisdent’s nomination for the presidency – after he had won the primaries.

When, however, after unfailing loyalty for eight years, Barbara Bush was eager to have a strong endorsement of her husband’s presidential candidacy during the 1988 campaign, she was devastated by the tableau arranged by the Reagans.

Instead of being invited inside to be entertained in the new Bel Air, California home of the Reagans, the Bush motorcade was stopped at the gate which was, strangely, covered in what appeared to be simply brown wrapping paper.

The Reagans stepped out from behind the gates and smiled for the Bushes to come join there. They were going no further. The bizarre photo op of them in front of the brown-paper covered black gates was the extent of the Reagan endorsement. Barbara Bush had a hunch it wasn’t the President’s idea and could no longer hold her tongue.

On December 7, 1988 after Bush had won the presidency, Nancy Reagan invited Barbara Bush to hitch a ride with her to and from New York on the First Lady’s plane, for a luncheon with Russian First Lady Raisa Gorbachev.

Robert Keith Gray, Republican public relations executive and associate of both families, later told about the exchange between the two women, as related by Mrs. Bush. In keeping a promise to him that the tale would not be told until after both women had died, it is published here for the first time.

Barbara Bush calmly whispered to Nancy Reagan, “You’ve never liked me and I’ve never liked you. After this, we don’t have to do anything together again.”

Nancy Reagan, smiled wanly but said nothing, as if she did not hear the words.

The Reagans pose with the Bushes in the family quarters of the White House, 1988.

As the tide was turning, however, Nancy Reagan surprised many by addressing the 1988 convention and said it was time for the Bushes to take center stage, and the Reagans to leave it.

During the campaign, the Reagans invited the Bushes to finally dine with them alone in the family quarters, countering the by-then well-known fact that they’d never been invited upstairs for such a private gathering of the four principals.

During the Bush presidency, however, Nancy Reagan’s obvious physical difference from Barbara Bush became a useful reference point for the latter to define a political differentiation between the two Republican administrations, suggesting that the Bush White House was more accessible and down-to-earth.

The Reagans and Bushes attend a National Cathedral service to mark the second Reagan-Bush inaugural, 1985.

She did so with self-deprecating observations about her physicality. “Nancy Reagan wears a size six. So is my leg,” cracked Bush. She showed off her “glamor” at a 1989 Inaugural event, by pointing out her “designer clothes,” a clear reference to Reagan, and “hair and makeup,” telling the audience to “remember it well, because it’s the last time you’ll see it.”

It had been a subtle sign of triumph when, after Vice President Bush had clinched the 1988 nomination that Barbara Bush appeared on a dais in her own scarlet red gown, instead of her expected blue, with Nancy Reagan in her signature color.

And when an especially malicious biography of Mrs. Reagan was published, Barbara Bush read through it all, but was careful to put a different book jacket on it so observers wouldn’t know. When the Reagans returned to the White House, hosted by the Bushes, for the unveiling of their White House portraits, the air was, one guest said, “polite and formal, with tense smiles.” And the two women adhered to their identity colors.

When Bush ran for reelection in 1992, Nancy Reagan grew concerned about what Barbara Bush would think of her when it seemed that she might not be supportive of George Bush’s re-election. “Nancy Reagan called to assure me that the Cindy Adams column saying that she was going to vote for Ross Perot was not true.”

January 13, 1993, seven days before leaving the White House the Bushes presented Reagan with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

There was one last bit of frost. Although Bush had chosen his predecessor as a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he had not scheduled any date for the White House ceremony to take place. Nancy Reagan was reportedly upset by this. Just seven days before the Bushes turned over the White House to the Clintons, the Reagans were finally invited.

True to form, Barbara in blue, Nancy in red.

The women would see one another on ceremonial occasions for the next two decades, presidential library dedications, presidential funerals and one for one of their sorority, in July 2007, for Lady Bird Johnson.

Former First Ladies Bush and Reagan, 1997.

Since her husband was suffering from Altzheimers and thus unable to attend the 1997 Bush Library dedication, Mrs. Reagan saw her presence at that event more with the status of being Ronald Reagan’s representative and less as a former First Lady.

She pointed out to friends that had her husband not been president and had Bush as his vice president, that the latter would never have become the forty-first president at all. And, in that capacity, she kept herself prominent during the ceremonies, keeping close to the principal of her peers that day, Barbara Bush.

Rosalyn Carter, Barbara Bush, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton gathered for the Betty Ford Center’s twentieth anniversary, 2003.

Still, while it may be nothing more than coincidence, whenever all the sorority gathered to pose for group photographs, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush rarely stood next to one another and when they did, they had minimal interaction.

Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan at Gerald Ford’s 2007 funeral.

At the services for former president Gerald Ford in January of 2007, they even linked arms and chatted alone for a bit.

It was the last time they saw each other.

At Nancy Reagan’s 2016 funeral, all but one of her sorority of Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama attended.

Barbara Bush, not wishing to appear a hypocrite, did not.


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