Barbara Bush – A True Lady

My idea of a real lady is a woman who can talk with the boys, yet never lose her grace or femininity. You just know that you are in the presence of a true lady.

Barbara Bush had that quality. Below I’d like to offer a story given by a fellow Lexican yesterday on Barbara – courtesy of author and shuttle astronaut  Mike Mullane from his book “Riding Rockets,” Scribner 2006 – edited)


(By Mike Mullane)

The highlight of our meager postflight PR tour was a visit to George Bush, Senior’s White House. We were shocked by the invitation. STS-36 had been virtually ignored in the press. There were no women on the crew, no minorities, no firsts of any kind that might have turned out the press to cover a presidential handshake. Whatever the reason, the invitation was sincerely appreciated.

We met the President in the Oval Office, taking seats in sofas set around a coffee table. Mr. Bush sat in a nearby chair. The questions he asked indicated that he was well briefed on our mission. But it was hard to carry on a conversation. A steady stream of aides and secretaries were constantly coming to his side to get answers to questions and his signature on documents. I wondered if the man was ever alone, even on the toilet.

We left the President to his never-ending work and followed Barbara Bush on a tour of the White House. If I had not been aware she was the First Lady, I would have never guessed it from her behavior. She was talkative, witty, and completely devoid of any air of celebrity. She reminded me of my mother. I could easily picture her baiting a hook or hoisting a beer or throwing another log on the campfire.

We stepped into an ancient elevator for a trip to the upstairs living quarters. With five astronauts, five wives, Mrs. Bush, and an assistant, we were cheek to jowl in the small volume. Mrs. Bush was directly behind me and I did my best to resist being crushed into her front. Before the elevator door closed, Millie, the First Dog, somehow managed to wiggle under our feet to make it an even tighter squeeze.

As the box crept upward, the silence was total. In spite of Mrs. Bush’s easy manner we were all very self-conscious of her company. To occupy the uncomfortable seconds we watched the elevator indicator panel with the same intensity as an astronaut watching a space rendezvous. Some of us moved slightly to accommodate the dog. Chris Casper, John’s wife, finally cracked under the oppressing silence. She nervously offered an icebreaker – “Oh, I feel it between my legs.”

While it was obvious she was referring to Millie’s wagging tail, the words hung over our sardined group like really bad flatulence. A reference to anything between an woman’s legs was tough to comment on in polite company, much less in the company of the First Lady of the nation. Chris quickly realized her mistake and tried to recover by amending her words. She nervously added, “I mean I feel the dog between my… er… my legs.”

It was just too much for me to keep my mouth shut. She had served up a ball just begging to be spiked. I couldn’t resist. “Are you sure it’s not John’s hand?” I inquired. My comment elicited a few snickers and an elbow jab from Donna. As had frequently been the case in my life, I immediately wished the joker in me would have kept quite. What was Mrs. Bush thinking? I wondered. Maybe this time I had gone too far.

I need not have worried. As regret shot through my brain, I felt Mrs. Bush’s hand lightly pat me on a butt cheek as she said, “That’s John’s hand.” Then she winked at Donna and said, “I’ve got him right where I want him.” I was stunned. She was a Mike Mullane clone. She couldn’t let a perfect setup fall to the sand – she had to nail it.

After tea, Mrs. Bush led us downstairs to finish our tour, giving us a running commentary on the history of the rooms we passed. But she skipped over some recent history I was privy to. An astronaut who had made an earlier White House visit had told of entering a room in the company of Mrs. Bush and being brought to a sudden halt by the overpowering stench of dog crap.

Everybody had quickly fixated on the source… Millie’s deposit. The astronaut witness had recounted how a silence as heavy as the odor had enveloped their group. Nobody wanted to acknowledge the obvious, that Millie had desecrated the carpet. But, without missing a beat, Barbara Bush turned to look at her astronaut visitors and jokingly warned, “If I read about this in the Post tomorrow, you’re all dead meat!”

Mrs. Bush would have fit perfectly into our TNFG gang. I could see her at the Outpost and Pete’s BBQ and on the LCC roof. There are some things the trappings of wealth and power and great political office can never dissolve. Among these are the bonds of the military family. As the wife of a WWII naval aviator, Barbara Bush had long ago experienced everything we had lived and were continuing to live… fear, the heartache of hearing “Taps” played over friends’ graves, and consoling grieving widows and fatherless children.

As we walked away, I thought of those dissident Wellesley women. Mrs. Bush had been invited to give a commencement address at Wellesley College, but, after accepting, some of the students had organized a movement to disinvite her. These women considered her a poor role model since her only identity was through her husband. Apparently, for them, being a wife and mother were not qualifying credentials for a commencement speaker.

They had been right about one thing – Mrs. Bush shouldn’t have been invited to speak at their commencement merely because she was the First Lady. Any woman could be one of those. Rather, she should have been invited because she was a member of the Greatest Generation, because she had kissed her man off to war and been left to wonder if she would ever see him again, because – as loving and supportive wife of a WWII naval aviator – she had done her part to save the world. Those were commencement address qualifications for any college, even Wellesley. 

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