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Sean Kirst: Barbara Bush, her passing, and one last national service

The photographs are flying around Twitter.

There is George H.W. Bush, in his wheelchair, a pensive figure near the casket of his wife, Barbara, in a Houston church.

There are the Secret Service agents with that casket, agents assigned for years to protect the former First Lady, who even now are staying at her side.

You would need a heart of stone to be unmoved by these images. Yet beyond the immediate sense of condolence, I felt something I had trouble defining, some kind of aching gratitude for such simple grace.

It suddenly occurred to me this morning, as the sun finally broke the layers of cloud in this gray April, as this long-awaited spring finally came to the Northeast:

Even in death, Barbara Bush is offering a service to the nation.

Barbara Bush came to Buffalo area – for Metro Rail and Chautauqua stop

She was a Republican, the wife of one president and the mother of another. She was strong-willed, sometimes acerbic, no one's pushover. She was no more perfect than any of us, no less passionate in defense of those she loved, no less capable of making a mistake, but she projected a quality that at this moment in time feels absolutely precious.

In the things she seemed to value, in the way she carried herself in the public sphere, she was typically reminiscent of that entire generation of parents shaped by World War II.

Even now, she projects a sense of fundamental respect, of fundamental decency.

Which many of us would still like to think is fundamentally American.

She married a guy who barely survived a war, who understood what it was, who was never casual about what it meant or what is always lost.

She went back to a time when Republicans and Democrats could disagree, aggressively and passionately, when political elbows could be thrown without vicious taunts about the absolutely deepest points of character, without roiling tides of reflexive bile.

Certainly, there were times when she was a lightning rod. Maybe the biggest uproar in her life was a moment that would scarcely survive beyond a news cycle or two today. In 1984, after watching her husband - vice president to President Ronald Reagan - squaring off philosophically with Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, Barbara Bush said she had a word in mind for Ferraro, the first woman on a major party presidential ticket:

"I can't say it, but it rhymes with 'rich,'" she said. In a memoir, she would say that she thought the remark was off the record. Once it burst into the national spotlight, she did something that in today's climate seems remarkable.

Just before she came to Buffalo, on her way to a role in the opening of the city's Metro Rail system, she called Ferraro.

And apologized.

Not in some phony way, carefully scripted, but on the phone.

Personally, and privately.


In death, her family's role in public life is almost incidental, despite the international spotlight of such loss. The 93-year-old man in the wheelchair is a former president and the father of a president, but the grief he is feeling is communal. At some point, whatever our background or philosophy, we have all known it. Or we will.

He and his wife shared a marriage that lasted 73 years, and what he feels for her is not Republican or Democratic, not liberal or conservative.

For this one moment, it is simply where we start, and where we end.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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