Barbara Pierce Bush was the last of her kind. I don’t just mean the last of the moderate Republicans, or the last of the WASP aristocrats, or the last of the flinty Yankees, or even the last in a sense of the frontier wives who left the comforts of the American East to follow a husband seeking his fortune in the wilder West. She was indeed all these things.
In surveying her life after her passing at the age of 92, I’m struck by the fact that she was probably the last truly prominent American woman to grow to maturity at a time when what young people wanted was not to remain young but to secure the benefits of adulthood. And it was what the culture in which they lived wanted them to do as well. Youth culture was an invention of the 1950s. Before then, the cultural message was that your life before adulthood was preparation for adulthood.
Barbara Pierce and George Bush married in 1945 when he was still a Navy flier. She was 19, and there was the genuine prospect he might not return from the Pacific. He had already crash-landed and two of his crewmates had not survived the crash. She assumed an adult burden then and there.
I am only a student when it comes to understanding the contours of American life during the 1940s, but I’m struck by the fact that this would have seemed not only normal or expected but also praiseworthy assuming the mantle of maturity. No person who wished to be taken seriously would have wanted to look like a teenage bobby-soxer any longer than absolutely necessary.
Now, in 2018, the casual fashion of pre-adult life is the sine qua non of adult life as well, because we see being youthful as the ultimate value.
It goes without saying that such a thing was not the case between the years of 1941 and 1945 in this country. Sixteen million young men went off to war and while they were mostly boys when they left, the minute they put on a uniform and picked up a rifle they were men by definition. They were engaged in a civilizational struggle. And what they deserved for what was being demanded of them was the respect of being considered men, not boys, by the country they served.
Barbara Bush set up shop in New Haven as a young married woman as her husband finished Yale, where he was years older than many of his classmates and had flown 58 combat missions. While there, at the age of 20, she gave birth to a future president of the United States.
Women of the time referred to each other as “girls,” but would anyone in our day apply the word “girl” to the 20-year-old Barbara Pierce Bush?