Wednesday, April 18, 2018

When did Barbara Bush Become Everyone's Grandmother?

This image is not from former First Lady, Barbara Bush’s, obituary – it is from a post-mortem of her husband, President George H. W. Bush’s, one term in office. Alice Steinbach, writing in the Baltimore Sun (as reprinted in the Fort Myers (Florida) News-Press, January 20, 1993, page D1).

Former First Lady of the United States, Barbara Bush, passed away on April 17, 2018, just two days after her husband, President George H. W. Bush’s, office released a statement that she would not seek additional medical treatment following recent hospitalizations.

During her last days, and in the early aftermath of her death, every single journalist, newscaster and talking head reminded us at least once (if not two or three times) in every single article, story or commentary, that Mrs. Bush had been “everybody’s grandmother,” “everyone’s grandmother,” “America’s grandmother” or some variation on that theme.  So where did this expression come from? 

I understood the analogy because she did, in fact, look something like my grandmother, and like many of the grandmothers I’ve met over the years.  But I was surprised by the ubiquity of the expression, having no conscious recollection of ever having heard it before the recent spate of bad news.  Were my faculties failing me or did I just miss memo?

When did Barbara Bush become “everybody’s grandmother”?

Barbara Bush has been referred to as “everybody’s grandmother” (or the like) since at least the last month of her husband’s 1988 campaign for President.  However, it does not appear to have become “a thing” until the last few days before her passing.   

The title came naturally, given her white hair, kindly personality, and self-described “matronly” personal style.  And she earned the title naturally, with eleven grandchildren of her own at the time; eventually having fourteen grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. 

But surprisingly, perhaps, the appellation was not conferred on her by the press; she assumed the title on her own behalf. 

On October 5, 1988, with one month to go in her husband’s Presidential campaign, Barbara Bush visited the Crippled Children’s Hospital and School of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she spoke with several of the students.  One student, Mike Menning (then 13), made her laugh:

Menning looked at the 63-year-old Bush and her prematurely white hair and called her: “Gram.”

To which Bush said: “I look like everybody’s grandmother.”

Argus-Leader (Sioux Falls, South Dakota), October 6, 1988, section D, page 1.

Barbara Bush at the Crippled Children's Hospital and School of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Argus-Leader (Sioux Falls, South Dakota), October 6, 1988, section D, page 1.

Other early examples also refer to Mrs. Bush’s personal use of the expression, although it is unclear whether she used the term more than once or whether the original use became magnified by repeated, out-of-context references in the press:

On one side there is Barbara Bush, 63, laying claim to being “everybody’s grandmother” . . . .

The Journal News (White Plains, New York), November 4, 1988, section C (Living), page 1.

The fake news got it wrong, however.  She does not appear to have claimed to be everyone’s grandmother; only to look the part.  And although she said she looked like “everybody’s grandmother,” she may not have meant “everybody,” literally; she wasn’t even completely comfortable being mistaken for some people’s mother:

“I’m everybody’s grandmother,” she would say.  “It’s the gray-haired ladies who come up and say, ‘Gee, you look exactly like my mother’ that worry me a bit.”

Arizona Republic (Phoenix, Arizona), January 12, 1990, Section D, page 4.

She also had a sense of humor about those elements of her look that made her seem grandmotherly:

America loves leaders who poke fun at themselves.  So when they said Barbara Bush looked like everybody’s grandmother (including, some said unkindly, her husband’s) she replied, “My mail tells me that a lot of fat, white-haired, wrinkled ladies are tickled pink.”

The Los Angeles Times, June 2, 1990, section B, page 16.

Whereas Barbara Bush may have been the first to say that she looked like “everybody’s grandmother,” the press elevated her to actually being our “grandmother”:

On Jan 20, America gets a new president, George Herbert Walker Bush. . .  We’re also getting us a grandmother . . . America’s grandmother.

The Anniston Star (Anniston, Alabama), December 7, 1988, section B, page 1.

The expression was used regularly, if only occasionally, throughout Bush Sr.’s term in office and off-and-on during the following decade or so.  In some cases it was used to compare her favorably to later First Ladies (or prospective First Ladies):

“Barbara Bush was everybody’s grandmother, Hillary Clinton was everyone’s mean boss and I think Liddy Dole is trying to return to the supportive spouse.” – Donna Reed, a Republican state senator from Delaware.

Chicago Tribune, September 1, 1996, section 13, page 6.

But the expression never took hold as a prominent or permanent part of American pop-culture until the last few days of her life.  The relative frequency (or infrequency) of its use during her lifetime may be illustrated by search results on  A search for the name “Barbara Bush” results in nearly 140,000 hits from 1988 through 2017, whereas searches for “Barbara Bush” and one of “everybody’s/everyone’s/America’s grandmother”, during the same period, result in 66 hits total (33, 18 and 15, respectively); and only one of those from after 2007 (similar searches using "grandma" yield 11, 8 and 19 hits, respectively; only one of them after 2000).

So as we mourn the passing of an American icon we celebrate the creation of a new title in the pantheon of American pop-cultural royalty – “America’s Grandmother.” 

Rest in peach, Barbara Bush.

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