Belfast Telegraph

America's First Grandmother? Surely Barbara Bush deserves a more fitting tribute than that?

Literacy drive: Barbara Bush
Literacy drive: Barbara Bush
Barbara Bush with husband George and son George W
Barbara Bush with son George W

By Caitlin Morrison

The tributes that have poured out in the wake of Barbara Bush's death have exposed something of a dichotomy at the heart of her legacy.

The former First Lady was one half of the partnership that started the most successful political dynasty in modern-day American politics, with a US president for a husband and a son.

Following her death last Tuesday, at the age of 92, Bush has been remembered as a force to be reckoned with: someone who was unafraid to speak her mind when she deemed it necessary.

"She was fierce and feisty in support of her family and friends, her country and her causes", said former President Bill Clinton, who replaced her husband in the White House.

Others looked back fondly on her ability to skewer opponents with sharp wit and a sometimes caustic tongue - her reference to one of George H W Bush's political rivals as a "rhymes with rich" has been rehashed several times over the past week.

However, it's clear from the tributes that have poured out from all corners of the globe that Bush is mostly remembered as a kind of grandmother-to-all. She acknowledged this image herself, which many believe had its roots in her white hair, which she developed unusually young after tragedy struck the family when her first daughter Robin died from cancer, aged three.

Others say it was down to her relaxed, down-to-earth manner - markedly different to that of her stylish and reserved predecessor Nancy Reagan - with a nice line in self-deprecating humour, which gave people the impression she was someone with whom they could strike up an easy friendship.

Her status as grandmother to a nation is somewhat fascinating to me - as well as being intensely irritating.

Grandmothers are usually portrayed as lovable, but largely harmless - not necessarily what you want in a leadership role. And US First Ladies take on a real leadership role.

Their names are as well-known as those of their husbands and often become synonymous with the causes they decide to champion.

Betty Ford had her rehab centre, Michelle Obama had her healthy eating campaign and Barbara Bush had her literacy campaigning, through which she raised millions to improve reading skills around the world.

In any case, the idea of "a grandmother" is largely meaningless. It's not a job, there aren't any qualifications for the role - outside of having a child, who then has a child.

You can be evil, stupid, lazy, good, bad and/or ugly and still be a grandmother.

So, why use the term for someone so greatly admired?

Grandmother is far from a pejorative, but it's miles away from the way great male leaders are described by their fans.

It's also miles away from the terms used for divisive, or controversial, female leaders - for examples of that, we need only look at some of the insults the next First Lady dealt with.

Hillary Clinton had a big pair of shoes to step into and bringing her brand of independence, personal ambition and wariness about the media to the role threw her into sharp contrast with Bush.

As such, she failed to win the same genuine affection as Bush and, instead, has been putting up with severe - and often unfair - criticism throughout her time in the public eye.

However, the praise she does get focuses on her intelligence, her tenacity, her strength - any of the positive attributes that she has demonstrated through her actions. These same qualities could easily be applied to Bush.

This is perhaps why the epithet most used in commemorating her seems quite galling.

Barbara Bush was one of the most popular First Ladies in history. And the best tribute most people can come up with is that she was some sort of universal grandmother?

Surely, she deserves better than that?

Belfast Telegraph


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