Call Me Bar: Remembering Former First Lady Barbara Bush

Apr 19, 2018

Credit David Valdez / White House Photo Office

Former First Lady Barbara Bush passed away earlier this week. Dr. David Alsobrook worked for the National Archives and was the director of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas. Alsobrook, who now lives in Mobile got to know the Bush family during his time there and has this remembrance…

So, as the director, how well did you get to know the Bush family?

 “I got to know George and Barbara Bush quite well, and uh, another future president George W. Bush, their son, as well as all their other children and all the different staff members who had worked with them in the White House. So, it was a very interesting experience, and it’s one that I’ll never forget.”

What was Mrs. Bush like as a person?

“When I first met her I was a little bit intimidated by her, but she has this talent of putting you very quickly at ease. I’ll never forget—this must have been around 1997-98—she called me on Thanksgiving day at home in College Station, and she said would it be possible for me to come down to the library because she was in town with her grandchildren and they wanted to look around at the exhibits.

And, so, I said, “well sure.”

And I went down there and meet and I said, “Sure is good to see you, Mrs. Bush.”

And then she said, “Now David, let me get something straight with you. If we’re going to keep meeting like this I want you to call me ‘Barbara’ or ‘Bar’ and I want you stop using the term ma'am with me.”

And I said, “I’ll do the best that I can.”

So, she was like that. She just had this way of putting you at ease and making you, uh, just relax and do your job. I was always impressed with her, too, because even though I was a civil servant, she treated me and my wife, Ellen, and our children, Adam and Meredith, just like we were members of the Bush family. As a government employee you just can’t ask for any more than that.”

I heard that Mrs. Bush had quite a sense of Humor. How true is that?

“She liked to on occasion play practical jokes. Not long after they left the White House—two or three years, this was around 1996 maybe around ‘97—I walked out to the back part of the library because we were expecting her and her husband to come up from Houston to spend the day at their apartment and several secret service agents came running out of the woods and they were just very agitated and upset and one of the agents said, the lead agent said, uh “Have you seen Mrs. Bush?”

And I said, “Isn’t that your job? Ha ha, staying with the First Lady.”

It was one of these occasions where she really loved her independence and she really loved to drive her own car that she had essentially escaped from the secret service detail, uh, in her own car sometime between, somewhere between Houston and College Station, uh, and drove her own self to the library without any assistance.”

I also heard that she was pretty straight forward, and that also applied to even dealing with her husband, the former president. Can you think of any instances where something like that happened?

“President Bush called me up one and said, “Would you be interested in having my boat?” From Kennebunkport, the Fidelity I  was the name of it, on exhibit in the library.

And I said, “Sure, I’d love to.”

"You know, a lot of historical events took place on that boat. We had world leaders and we had satellite phone conversations with people. You know, with countries all over the world. It was a very historic boat."

I said,”Sure. We’d love to have it.”

 Well, not long after that Mrs. Bush called me up and said, “Did George call you up and tell you that he wanted you to have the Fidelity I because of all its historical significance and all the events that had taken place aboard that boat and conversations.”

And I said, “Yes, he did.”

And she said, “That’s not true. He just wanted a new boat.”

And what do you think will be Mrs. Bush’s legacy?

“Well, I think in recent days we’ve certainly heard that she and Abigail Adams had the distinction in our history of being the only two First Ladies whose husbands and sons were president. You know, that’s just a historical fact. I think that, number one, she was a great role model for young women who were growing up. I think she, uh, showed that you can have a career, but you can also have a family. I think that she brought class and dignity to the position of First Lady, because she could be very dignified and she project an image that she was an ordinary American woman, too.

Dr. David Alsobrook

Alsobrook served as the Carter Presidential Library’s first Supervisory Archivist and as the first Director of the George H.W. Bush and Clinton Presidential Libraries.  Last year he published a history of Eufaula’s cotton mill village and its people, titled "SOUTHSIDE."  He is currently writing a memoir of his Presidential Library experience and service to three Presidents.