Presidential Mothers: Dorothy Bush teaches her children humility

Published 12:10 pm Tuesday, June 20, 2023

By  Betty Etchison West

For the Enterprise

Dorothy Bush, the mother of the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, and, grandmother of the 43rd President, George Walker Bush, was a stickler for rules. She not only believed in having rules, but she believed that you should live by those rules every day.

That is exactly what Dorothy Bush did; she lived by the rules so her children could almost have absorbed then by osmosis. Rules such as “Give the other guy credit, be kind, don’t whine and complain, count your blessings, be honest, your conscience should be your guide…it’s not good manners to talk about yourself… think about other people, be thoughtful and considerate.” That list was taken from the book titled, “First Mothers, the Women Who Shaped the Presidents” by Bonnie Angelo.

The following statement by Dorothy’s son, George, is also from Angelo’s book: “She (Dorothy) set the example; she led by the way she lived her life rather than lecturing to us all the time.  She did give advice; it was always sound—always about being thoughtful and considerate of others.  And about being kind.  She didn’t lecture about love…..she lived that part of life and we saw it ever day of our lives.”

Dorothy Bush was a Christian who taught Christian precepts, not by talking about them, but by living them. Dorothy was born into the wealthy, mid-western Walker family. She married Prescott Bush, who was a member of the wealthy Bush family.

When Dorothy and Prescott had children, five in all, she could have hired nannies to care for the m and spent the day socializing. That was not the case.  Dorothy did have a cook, maids to clean and a general factotum, Alec Chodaczek, an Uranian immigrant, who kept things running on an even keel; but she took care of her children herself.

Dorothy’s daughter said that their mother was always with them, meaning she was with her children every day. The children’s father was more remote because he went into the city to work each day. The children were a little bit afraid of their father because he was a different kind of disciplinarian. He was not as comfortable with the children involved in activities all around him. He liked it better when they were dressed and were sitting quietly at the table during dinner.

One family activity that Prescott Bush did love was having the family gather around the piano and sing popular songs, old and new.  Prescott Bush had a beautiful voice, and he knew all the words to all the songs.  That reminded him of his Whiffenpoof days at Yale University.

Dorothy Bush was a small, athletic person.  She played a terrific game of tennis; golf; and was up for any kind of physical activity. She was competitive and often a winner, but she was not a braggart.  She said that no one liked a braggart, and people should not spend time talking to others about themselves.  She taught the children that they should be team players. One day George came in talking about his ballgame.  His mother said, “You didn’t have a game, how did the team do?”

Being indoctrinated with the idea that nobody likes a braggart and no one like to hear people talk about themselves, made politicking hard for George Herbert Walker Bush. Politicians talk about themselves and all they have done. Some politicians do not even seem to have trouble taking how great they are. That was not George Bush, but he did talk about what he wanted to do if he was elected president.  Remember his thousand points of light?

When reading about the kind of training that George Bush got from his mother concerning being a team player, one begins to fast-forward to the many jobs which George later held that required teamwork—Ambassador to the United Nations, Chair of the National Republican Party, Head of the U.S. Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China, and director of the CIA. George Herbert Walker Bush was chosen for all those jobs because he was a team player.

The fact that you should love and help others was so instilled in George that he was called “have-half” because if he had a candy bar or a sandwich, he would invite another child to “have half.”

Once when his school was having a field day, a fat boy got caught in a barrel.  George H.W. Bush jumped up from his seat, ran onto the field, helped free the boy, and then ran the rest of the race with him. One of the Bush children said, “Mother said ‘think about other people. Put other people first.’” The lessons about being considerate of other became a part of George H.W. Bush’s persona. The lady who George H.W. Bush married many years later said, “George is the nicest person in the world.”  She said that after they had been married for many years.

The year that George Bush was going to graduate from high school, he attended a dance at the country club during his Christmas holidays.  There he met a girl, named Barbara Pierce, who attended a girl’s school in South Carolina. That was a “love at first sight” story. George and Barbara went back to their respective schools, but all that they seemed to think about was each other. As soon as George was graduated, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and trained to become a Navy pilot. Instead of Dorothy Bush being upset about her young son’s love affair, she took Barbara to see George at Chapel Hill, where he was being trained. He actually became the youngest Navy pilot ever.

From the beginning of the George Bush/Barbara Pierce love affair, Dorothy was understanding and supportive. George and Barbara got married as soon as George returned from fighting in the Pacific.

Dorothy was totally supportive even though both George and Barbara were still quite young. Barbara said that she felt closer to her mother-in-law, Dorothy, than she did to her mother—that was quite a tribute to Dorothy, maybe not to Barbara’s mother, Mrs. Pierce.

Dorothy went to China to visit her son when he was head of the U.S. Liaison Office there. Considerate George had sent Barbara home to be with their children because he thought one of the parents should be with them at Christmas even though they were almost grown. Dorothy did not want George to be alone so she went to China when she was well into her 70s.

Dorothy, always the athlete, rode a bicycle all over the city while the Chinese people looked on in amazement. That did not bother Dorothy; she had a fine time exploring.

Much has been said about Christian precepts, which Dorothy taught by the way she lived on a daily basis, but she also enjoyed having people around who discussed religion. The Bushes were also good friends of Billy Graham, the evangelist, and his wife, Ruth Graham. When the Grahams visited Walker’s Point, the Bush vacation home, Billy would sit down, discuss, and answer questions about religion and/or about the Bible, which the children and grandchildren who sat around him, would ask.

George Walker Bush, who became the 43th President of the United States, said that it was in one of these sessions that the direction of his life changed.  That, of course, please George’s grandmother.

According to Angelo’s book, “When tourists were being conducted through the White House after George H.W. Bush became President In 1989, they saw there on the portico was the frail, 87-year-old mother of the new president, parked in her wheelchair, chatting and shaking hands with the line of public visitors, and, when she moved inside, she took up a spot by a window where she could wave to them. The legs that had raced over so many tennis courts were no loner steady, and illness had left her fragile, but nothing could keep her from participating in the grandest moment of her life.”

Dorothy Bush lived through the four years of George H.W. Bush’s presidency and a short time after he was defeated after serving one term. Even while he was a busy president, George Bush said that his mind was often on his mother and his love for her.  It’ was his Mum’s words: “Do you best, try your hardest, be kind, share, go to church.”  When she was ninety-one, Dorothy Walker Bush had another stroke and died.  That was a terrible blow for a family that had enjoyed being led for so many years by a strong, feisty lady, named Dorothy Walker Bush.

Angelo ends the chapter on Dorothy Bush, which was titled, “Play by the Rules,” with these words:“He (George Herbert Walker Bush) had been dealt two terrible blows, one upon the other, and now he must hand over the White House to the man who had defeated him.  He performed that wrenching task with the grace and goodwill he had been taught by his mother.  Her hallmark on favored son was indelible.”

George Herbert Walker. Bush’s personality was such that he later became good friends with the man who defeated him, William Jefferson (Bill) Clinton. It was a friendship that was rewarding for both the Bush and the Clinton families.