Barbara Bush’s legacy of humanity, decency

Barbara Bush’s legacy of humanity, decency

Publication info

Michelle Nunn

A version of this piece ran on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution website on April 20, 2018.



I met Barbara Bush for the first time after being revived from passing out as a teenager at a Rose Garden Ceremony. It must have been the heat or the standing, but my trip with mom to the White House to experience a welcome ceremony for a visiting foreign President, turned into a more unique adventure. I was roused by the Secret Service by smelling salts and awakened with my mother and Mrs. Bush staring down with concern. I don’t remember much, but that she was kind, gracious, generous- taking on the mantle that so many have lauded over the last few days- motherly concern. When someone passed out in her front yard, it was not something for the staff to take care of, we were ushered into her home and revived with a drink and personal care by the First Lady. 


I was lucky that this chance meeting was just the beginning of many visits with Mrs. Bush over the years.  As I have reflected upon her life over the last few days, along with the nation, I have considered how we hunger for those qualities that made her so beloved. We need to not only honor, but lift up and hold onto those values that she embodied, but seem in short supply in Washington these days. It wasn’t just that she was a great character living an extraordinary life. Her popularity and her standing with the American public speaks to a set of values that I believe have made America great- and unique.


Ultimately, Barbara Bush and George Bush were, throughout their lives committed to service. This was their fundamental under-girding ethos. And this is how I was reunited with the Bush family. With a merger between an organization that I helped start and Points of Light, I became the CEO of one of the many legacies of the President. The organization is the largest organization dedicated to volunteering in the world and now housed in Atlanta. I worked with the President and Mrs. Bush and their son Neil, our board chair, and met their children and grandchildren. And I saw first- hand that the essential lesson that characterizes the Bush family was that the “fundamental definition of a successful life is one of service to others.” Mrs. Bush lived this out from her leadership and deep personal dedication to overcoming cancer to her extraordinary passion for literacy. Being a servant leader was her hallmark. 


Service to others was the fundamental value that she passed on to her children. Her pride in their commitments to service was overflowing. Neil continues to chair Points of Light and the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation and his son Pierce is the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters Lone Star. Her success in passing this value on is lived out by every one of the Bush family members. 


She had a fierce wit and she did not hold back with an occasional jab that got her in hot water. But this authenticity was also what made her so beloved and truly real. Hers was not the false bravado of defying political correctness to offend, but more often to protect one of her loved ones or to simply claim the integrity of speaking her mind. But she was also willing to apologize or to say she was wrong, embracing this not as weakness but as human. Giving us all a little permission to do the same.


And although Barbara Bush lived a life of privilege, she eschewed the trappings and superficialities of wealth. I took great personal solace in her saying that “People who worry about their hair all the time, frankly, are boring.” I well remember my nervousness on my first visit to Walker’s Point for a cocktail party that the Bush’s hosted for Points of Light. I loved that as we entered through the cozy kitchen, we found that the hors d’oeuvres being offered were Fritos in a silver bowl. Barbara Bush did not need to impress with caviar or shrimp cocktail – she made us all feel right at home with Fritos. Frugality was her value, not extravagance. 


Ultimately, Barbara Bush lived a life of civility and her passing also seems to speak to a bygone era in which human relationships ultimately trumped partisan differences. My mom told me in reflecting back that she was the only Vice-Presidential wife that would come every single Tuesday to the lunch held for Republican and Democratic spouses- a tradition long passed in Washington. I well remember posing for a picture with all the former Presidents and Neil Bush calling out playfully that Bill Clinton was their brother from another mother. Barbara Bush was at the center of the joking- embracing the man who had defeated her beloved husband as a friend and even a “son of sorts.” Barbara Bush knew that the ultimate currency in life is not power or money, but service, family, faith, humor, and ultimately common decency. 


 First Lady Barbara Bush in the White House East Room for an official White House portrait, January 1992. Photo credit: White House Photo Office, courtesy George Bush Presidential Library and Museum