Ohio Sen. Rob Portman paid tribute to former first lady Barbara Bush last night on the Senate floor. Here’s what he had to say:
“Today I want to talk about the passing of an extraordinary woman. A woman who captured the hearts of Americans across every spectrum.
“Barbara Bush was one of the most popular people in America—and for good reason. One of only two women in the history of our country to be both First Lady of the United States and also the mother of a president, she consistently used those platforms that, as she would say, ‘God graced her with’ for good causes. Now there are many stories, but one I would like to recount is from shortly after President Bush’s election. She went to an AIDS hospice here in Washington, D.C. and this was a time that the AIDS epidemic was a huge crisis, but frankly there was a stigma attached to it and a lot of nervousness about the disease. Barbara Bush picked up a baby with AIDS and cradled that baby. She hugged and kissed kids with AIDS, and the message was very clear: there should be no stigma, we have nothing to fear, it’s time for us to embrace these people. Her quote that day was everlasting, her quote was very simple, she said, ‘There is a need for compassion.’ She spoke to the heart.
“She also used that platform she had to empower people through literacy. This was one of her great causes, she believed the world would be a much better place if everyone could read, and write, and comprehend, and the Barbara Bush Foundation for Literacy continues to do amazing work. She touched the lives of so many—so many young people, so many adults, and brought them into a new world through literacy. She accomplished a lot more in her distinguished life.
“She was dignified, straightforward, witty, and well intentioned. She had a habit of speaking her mind freely, and sometimes that got her in a little bit of trouble, but frankly when she did that almost all of us nodded our heads in agreement.
“Interestingly, her Secret Service codename was “Tranquility.” For anyone who knew her personally that might have seemed to be an odd codename. Probably she chose that codename herself, by the way. She wasn’t always tranquil, in fact she was sometimes feisty, famously so. One story that, I think, shows some of her feistiness was when she was having dinner one night with the president of the United States, 43, happened to be her son, and in front of many others, including staff, she commented critically on his table manners—which of course she loved, and so did he. The night before she left us, that feistiness was on display when Barbara Bush, instead of asking for pain medication, asked for a glass of bourbon, and with a smile, took a sip. But I think that name ‘Tranquility’ was fitting for her, it was fitting for her because she was a calming influence, she made things more tranquil. I saw that first hand at the White House, where she made life easier for everybody.
“I had the pleasure of first getting to know her when I was doing volunteer advanced work for her husband, then Vice President Bush. I traveled overseas with them, traveled around the country some with them, and got to see the calming influence she had on everyone around her. Later when I was in the counselors office in the White House, I got to see how she made everyone feel more comfortable, including me as a young White House staffer, encouraging me, knowing people, saying hello to them, talking to them, ensuring that the morale was good. Tranquility. It was helpful then, it was helpful throughout her life as she was there as the rock, as the adult.
“My wife, Jane, and I had recently become married. We had a child when I worked at the White House, and Barbara Bush couldn’t have been more gracious. She’s been a dear friend ever since, in fact, a few years later, when I first ran for office, I ran for the United States House of Representatives in Cincinnati, Ohio, the second congressional district of Ohio. She came to campaign for me. This was early in 1993, you’ll recall in 1992, George H.W. Bush, 41, had lost his reelection. We did a political event in Cincinnati. We took her to Skyline Chili, which is a famous place in my hometown and all around Southwest Ohio, although Skyline Chili and Cincinnati chili is an acquired taste, she at least acted like she really enjoyed it. She wore the bib and people loved it. Maybe most importantly for me, while she was there, she cut a radio ad for me, and in that radio ad she said, “I always enjoy having Skyline Chili with Rob Portman when I’m in Cincinnati.” She said some other things that were kind, and frankly, as I look back on that race, there were 10 people in the primary, my name identification was about six percent, half of whom thought I was somebody else who had a similar name, and I think that radio ad played a huge role in my first election, and my ability to be here today and to be able to serve the people of Ohio. Barbara Bush was an important reason I won. In that election, by the way, I stuck with George H.W. Bush who had just lost his reelection when others were being critical because I had so much respect for him and so much respect for her. And frankly, her popularity, I think, was an important reason that I was able to win.
“In recent years, I’ve made a habit of making a pilgrimage to Maine every summer to see them, sometimes Houston during the winter as well, but going to Maine has been a wonderful way to connect with them. I’ve gone with my daughter, I’ve gone with Jane, my wife, a few times. I sit with them, President Bush loves to give advice still, and I love to get it. Barbara Bush loved the political gossip, and we loved to talk about people and things and what was going on in Washington. She was curious, engaged, sharp, up to speed. She loved George H.W. Bush so deeply. She called him, sometime, F.L.F.W., Former Leader of the Free World. Again, her wit was on display everywhere she was. I remember being with them last summer on the porch, she also insisted on eating lunch outside, and the waves were coming in the Maine coast, the sun reflecting on the waves, family was always around, that was when she was happiest.
“I’ll certainly miss those moments we shared and the encouragement and always very candid advice that she was never hesitant to offer. But as we mourn the loss of this authentic and admired American, we should all find comfort in remembering the way she lived—and the incredible legacy that she leaves.
“She never ran for public office herself, but in a way she represented all of us. And I think she represented the best in all of us. I think that’s one reason she was so popular. And she showed us how to handle the spotlight and responsibility with grace, with dignity, with the, again, incredible way she was able to bring tranquility wherever she was. No wife, no mother, no grandmother, was ever more devoted to her family, and her unconditional love for her children, including the 43rd President of the United States, with whom she had a great relationship. Her true partnership with George H.W. Bush and service to the country—all the way through from the time he was an 18-year-old Navy pilot through his career as president and after—it’s an inspiration, that unconditional love and that partnership. An inspiration, certainly to me and Jane as a role model, but an inspiration to all of us as Americans.
“I know I speak for all of my colleagues here in the United States Senate as we pay tribute to her and also send our condolences to the entire Bush family. Barbara Bush is now in a better place, and I can imagine her smiling surrounded by family, including her beloved daughter, Robin, who she lost as a child. She’s on a coast somewhere, dignified, witty, and feisty all at once, and she’s earning that codename, ‘Tranquility.’”