Former president George HW Bush thanked fellow Americans on Wednesday for their “outpouring of love” following the loss of his wife of seven decades, Barbara, saying the tributes flowing in for the one-time first lady were “lifting us all up”.
Long seen as the pillar of one of America’s most prominent families, as wife to the 41st US president and mother to the 43rd, Barbara Bush died on Tuesday at her home in Texas aged 92, surrounded by her family.
Her 93-year-old husband, who was at her side until the end, holding her hand, was said to be heart-broken at the loss of “his beloved Barbara”.
But on Wednesday the ex-commander-in-chief struck a resolutely stoical tone.
“I always knew Barbara as the most beloved woman in the world,” he wrote in a statement. “In fact I used to tease her that I had a complex about that fact.”
“But the truth is the outpouring of love and friendship being directed at The Enforcer is lifting us all up,” he said, using a fond nickname coined by the Bush clan for their matriarch.
“We know life will go on – as she would have it,” he added. “So cross the Bushes off your worry list.”
Known for her trademark faux pearls and tart-tongued comments about life in and out of Washington — but also her deep loyalty to family and self-deprecating humour — Barbara Bush was in many ways a figure more popular among ordinary Americans than her high-flying husband and sons.
US President Donald Trump lent his voice to the chorus celebrating a departed national treasure.
“For decades Barbara was a titan in American life”, and a “tireless champion for literacy”, he told a press conference in Florida.
“Her presence and character were engraved into America’s identity. Her strength and toughness really embodied the spirit of our country,” Trump said, speaking alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who also offered his country’s “heartfelt condolences”.
Having undergone heart surgery in 2009, Bush was treated for years for Graves’ disease, a thyroid condition. As her health failed in recent days, she was moved into comfort care at her home in Houston.
Son George W. Bush, who won the White House eight years after his father left it, told Fox Business that he took solace from “her soul being comforted on her deathbed”.
“It’s the end of a beautiful life,” he said.
Barbara Bush is survived by five children, 17 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. She lost a sixth child — daughter Robin — to leukemia as a toddler.
She will be laid to rest in Texas after a memorial ceremony Saturday in Houston, to be attended by First Lady Melania Trump, former president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, and the former vice president Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne.
Former president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary were also reportedly due to attend.
Trump ordered flags to fly at half-staff at all public buildings and military posts in Bush’s honour.
Tributes poured in from across the political spectrum, including from the Obamas who voiced gratitude “to Mrs Bush for the generosity she showed to us throughout our time in the White House”.
“But we’re even more grateful for the way she lived her life — as a testament to the fact that public service is an important and noble calling; as an example of the humility and decency that reflects the very best of the American spirit.”
Bill Clinton, who succeeded Bush’s husband in office, described her as “a remarkable woman” who brought together “grit and grace, brains and beauty”.
“She showed us what an honest, vibrant, full life looks like.”
Barbara met her husband-to-be at age 16 when she was a schoolgirl and he was a student at an elite Massachusetts preparatory school. They married in 1945 while he was on leave from wartime service.
She made history as one of just two women to be wife and mother to two US presidents. Abigail Adams, who died in 1818, was the other.
Her son Jeb, a two-term Florida governor who also ran for president, hailed “the exceptionally gracious, gregarious, fun, funny, loving, tough, smart, graceful woman who was the force of nature known as Barbara Bush”.
Barbara Bush was her husband’s companion and advisor, travelling the world as he rose from Texas oilman to congressman, US ambassador to China, director of the CIA and eventually to the vice presidency and the White House.
But she avoided direct involvement in politics, and the posturing that comes with it – gaining a reputation for toughness, wry humour and straight-speaking.
“I’m not running for president; George Bush is,” she said at the 1988 Republican National Convention. “What you see with me is what you get.” — Al Jazeera