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Barbara Bush’s White Hair Defined Her Whole Persona

It was protective, and also maybe let her get away with a lot.

Barbara Bush Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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Former first lady Barbara Bush died yesterday at the age of 92. In practically every obituary written about her, there is mention of her signature hairstyle. Her “cloud of white hair,” as USA Today described it, even has an origin story that’s now as big a part of Bush’s legend as her fake pearls.

Bush supposedly went prematurely gray at the age of 28 after dealing with the tragic death of her 3-year-old daughter Robin from leukemia. Along the way, she acquired the nickname “the Silver Fox,” courtesy of her family. Eventually she started referring to herself as “Everybody’s Grandmother,” a moniker reflected in the Washington Post’s obituary headline: “Barbara Bush brought plainspoken, grandmotherly style to DC.”

Scrutiny of first ladies’ hairstyles is a national pastime, of course. Nancy Reagan’s helmet. Hillary Clinton’s headbands. Michelle Obama’s bangs. Meaning is ascribed and attractiveness is weighed. Bush, in many ways, took this narrative into her own hands, likely originally as an act of self-preservation from the unforgiving light that is shined on women in general, and women in Washington politics in particular.

Critique of her looks

According to a 1992 Vanity Fair feature titled “Barbara’s Backlash,” Bush had a critical mother who used to make comments about her weight, as well as an older sister so beautiful and glamorous that she was featured on the cover of Vogue. Later, people whispered that Bush looked older than her husband. “She looks like she could be his mother,” according to the Daily Beast’s obit, referring to a picture of the couple shortly after their daughter died.

MPI/Getty Images

The Vanity Fair feature notes: “By the time George and Barbara Bush reached their early forties, she was conscious of the disparity in their looks. Over time she tried different strategies for dealing with this painful contract — including, for a while, unsuccessfully dyeing her hair — until finally she settled on a rollicking self-satire that firmly beat observers to the punch.”

You can see this strategy in play in 1988 during her husband’s campaign, when she had just entered her 60s and was an actual grandmother. “I’m not going to turn into a glamorous princess,” she said, according to the Daily Beast, in what was perceived as a jibe at predecessor Nancy Reagan, a noted clotheshorse. “I’m not going to worry about it. I have plenty of self-confidence, not in how I look but in how I feel and I feel good about my husband, my children, and my life.”

(In a New York Times interview the same year, though, she admits to being bothered by the negative criticism of her looks. “‘I tell you the truth, it hurts,’’ she told the publication, adding, “When George was first going to run for President, a member of our family said, what are we going to do about Barbara? I said, funny, it doesn’t bother George Bush.’’)

From that point on, she embraced her matronly image, at least publicly. She told the Times, “People who worry about their hair all the time, frankly, are boring. I wash my hair every day of my life and probably washed all the color out. But I can exercise, play tennis. I don’t ever have to say to George, ‘I’m sorry I can’t do that, I just got my hair done.’ You have to have priorities in life, and that’s just one I have. What you see is what you get.’’

America’s Grandma?

In many ways, it softened her, this image of the consummate grandmother. The Washington Post, in its 1992 profile of the relationship between Bush and son George, noted that while caring for her dying daughter, her “strength [was] belied only by her hair.” Is gray hair weakness? Duh, of course, at least in the larger culture’s perception. Gray hair = old = weak. But Barbara understood this perception and used it brilliantly.

Gregory Smith/Corbis/Getty Images

“Short of axe murder, I think she could get away with anything,” a former spokesperson told Vanity Fair. “She’s so benign.”

Her public image was one of supportive helpmate for her husband and pride in her primary roles of wife and mother. Her gray hair helped her husband’s image publicly, as she cuddled babies with AIDS and promoted adult literacy. At one point, she had a higher approval rating than her husband.

However, she was also perceived as out of touch by a new generation of women, which was evident when she was invited to give a commencement speech at Wellesley College in 1990 (she had attended Smith but dropped out her sophomore year to get married). A petition circulated protesting that she didn’t represent “the type of career woman the college seeks to educate.” She went anyway, charmed them all, and got a standing ovation.

But she was not all hugs and needlepoint. White House staff were afraid of her, and she had a famously sharp tongue. Daughter-in-law Laura Bush wrote in her memoir, “She’s never shied away from saying what she thinks. ... She’s managed to insult nearly all of my friends with one or another perfectly timed acerbic comment.”

One of Bush’s worst gaffes came in 2005, though, when her son, President George W. Bush, was dealing with criticism and backlash over his handling of the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. While speaking about the New Orleans evacuees who were staying in the Houston Astrodome, she said on a radio show, “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway,” she said, “so this is working very well for them.” Not exactly the comment of an empathetic grandmotherly type.

Whether you approve or disapprove of Bush and her politics and attitude, as a first lady she was between a rock and a hard place, just like they all are. If she’d dyed her hair blonde and got it roller-set every day, would she have been called a battle ax instead of a grandma? Probably.

While her hair and issues were very different from those of her successor, Hillary Clinton, the underlying and unsolvable problem of the first lady remains the same: America wants her to be everything to everyone. And it’s impossible.

Bush did okay, though. “My mail tells me that a lot of fat, white-haired, wrinkled ladies are tickled pink,” she said, according to the Vanity Fair piece. “I mean, look at me — if I can be a success, so can they.”