This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The death of First Lady Barbara Bush will be a sad moment for all Americans. It comes in a season in which much of the political debate is about character and “fitness,” and without getting into any inapt comparisons, it’s hard to imagine anyone who would suggest that the wife of the 41st president of America lacked for character or fitness for the task history handed her.
We met Mrs. Bush but once, and in only a glancing way. Yet the encounter has stuck with us over the decades. It took place in the mid-1970s at Hong Kong. We were then a young editor with the Wall Street Journal’s Asian edition. A friend who worked at a Texas bank asked us to a cocktail reception for a former congressman from the Lone Star State.
The ex-congressman was George H.W. Bush. He was an important figure in Texas — not to mention the rest of the country. Since leaving Congress, he’d been our ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Liaison to Communist China. And so we raced over to the cocktail reception, which was at the famed Mandarin Hotel.
A line had been set up for our banker friend to receive his guests and introduce them, one by one, to the Bushes. We were introduced to Barbara Bush first. What we remember is that she had an incredibly strong handshake, so much so that we were startled. She followed it with an intent, earnest interrogatory that, while consisting merely of pleasantries, was nonetheless compelling.
So much so that we used the entirety of our 40 seconds or so in the receiving line chatting with Mrs. Bush (while discreetly checking to see if our right hand was still operable), and failed completely to shake the hand of, or converse with, the future president. So when we were later asked for our impression of Mr. Bush we had to confess we didn’t learn much save that he had a helluva impressive wife.
Not that her husband lacked for his own impressive qualities, which came more and more to the fore with each assignment he undertook. It’s hard to imagine, though, that any of it could have happened without Barbara Bush, one of, with Abigail Adams, the only woman to have handed up two presidents. Our advice to whatever angel meets Mrs. Bush at the Pearly Gates is that if he’s due to play the harp that evening, he might want to skip the handshake and make do with a welcoming bow.