The Queen Mother

Mother's Day is coming, and if you know what's good for you the Hallmark card is already in the mail. That is, unless your mother is Barbara Bush. The First Family has an unusual way of celebrating the hallowed American holiday. They put their heads down and hope it passes with as little fanfare as possible. George Herbert Walker Bush chafed when a NEWSWEEK reporter recently raised the idea of a Mother's Day article about his wife. "I wouldn't emphasize it if I were you," the former president warned. "She thinks it's gotten way too commercial."

It turns out to be prescient advice. Stepping into the front courtyard of her elegant Houston home, closely followed by Sadie, the family's springer spaniel, Barbara Bush wastes no time making her feelings on the matter known. "Did they tell you I'm not big on Mother's Day?" she asks tartly. "It's a big ripoff, you know that." Mrs. Bush's impatience with pomp is well known to family and close friends, who have long noted that the trademark pearls and prim white coif belie a salty tongue and stern demeanor. "She's the person in the family who keeps them up to standards," says historian David McCullough, who has spent time with the Bushes. "She's the one who says, 'You'd better shape up, pal, or you're going to hear from me'."

As First Lady, Mrs. Bush consciously projected a benign, maternal persona; unlike her intrusive predecessor, Nancy Reagan, she would leave politics to her husband. In her post-White House years, she has been mythologized as "America's grandmother"--the first woman since Abigail Adams to have been wife to one president and mother to another. Friends say that Mrs. Bush, now nearly 77, has grown weary of the role, and seems eager to be recognized, and ultimately remembered, for what she has always been: a fierce and influential protector of the Bush family name.

"They are really good grown-ups, my children," Mrs. Bush says, settling into a stuffed chair in the family's floral-patterned living room. "It's too late for me to do anything about them. They're done--and thank God they're done." Yet Mrs. Bush remains an insistent presence in their lives. The former president says he tries to stay out of his five kids' affairs, and is especially reluctant to give George W. advice unless asked. "I had my chance," Bush Sr. says. "He doesn't need me or his mother hovering over the scene."

But Barbara Bush sometimes has a harder time keeping her opinions to herself. She maintains a close watch over George W., and frequently calls him with encouragement. Though she shuns television news--"I get so mad!"--Mrs. Bush instructed an aide to call when her son is speaking. Late last month she saw the president on TV and thought he looked worn out. She tracked him down on Air Force One to cheer him up with a funny story. A reporter had misquoted a speech she'd given, in which she quipped that she'd had "three dress sizes" over the years. The paper had her saying she'd had three "breast sizes." The president howled at the joke.

Mother and son have a long history of using humor to ease adversity. In the painful years after the senior Bushes lost their 3-year-old daughter, Robin, to leukemia in 1953, George W., still a small child himself, clung to his mother's side, trying to lighten her mood with jokes and antics.

Among the five children, George W. inherited the lion's share of his mother's personality traits--her blunt manner, impatience and her black-and-white world view (in contrast to her diplomatic husband, who sees shades of gray). At a Senate retreat the second week of Bush's presidency, one political adversary stood to compliment George W. for being so gracious and polite, just like his father. The new president quickly shot back, "Don't forget, I've got half of my mother in me, too." It was a joke, but also a warning. Mrs. Bush says she was pleasantly surprised that her son showed restraint in the weeks after September 11, carefully formulating a war plan before retaliating. "I'm not sure I'd have been that good," she says.

Growing up in remote, dusty Midland, Texas, the Bush children learned their daily life lessons from their mother. Much of the time George Sr. was off wildcatting, building a name for himself in the oil business and later in national politics. Mrs. Bush was a passionately attentive mother who raised her kids according to a set of rules that one relative calls "Barbara's principles." The Bush children were expected to look beyond themselves and be mindful of the needs of the less fortunate. To keep their whining to themselves. And to never take themselves too seriously.

George Sr. made plenty of oil money, but Barbara stuck to her Yankee frugality as a lesson to her children not to be wasteful. She cut up Christmas cards to make gift tags and hunted for bargains at discount stores. And she's been known to pilfer soaps from expensive hotel rooms to give to women's shelters. Even today she does much of her shopping at Sam's Club.

Mrs. Bush expects her 14 grandchildren to live up to the same standards. Each summer, Ganny and Gampy, as they're known, host the "grands" at the sprawling family house in Kennebunkport, Maine. The kids dubbed the event "boot camp," after Barbara's strict rules. PICK UP YOUR TOWELS, warn notices posted on the bedroom doors. DON'T LEAVE YOUR CLOTHES ON THE FLOOR. Two summers ago, when the whole clan celebrated Barbara Bush's 75th birthday, the grandchildren cautiously poked fun at their strict matriarch with a song set to the "Twelve Days of Christmas." One verse went, "On the sixth day of Christmas my Ganny said to me, 'Get your asses out of bed'."

Until recently, Mrs. Bush tooled around Kennebunkport in a black TransAm, a goofy luxury she adored. "I had to give it up," she says sighing. "That car was an invitation for one of the grandchildren to get arrested. And that's all we need, is for another one of them..."

She stops herself midsentence, but her point is clear enough. She was aghast when George W.'s underage twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, were caught last year at an Austin bar, and faced their grandmother at Camp David soon after. The girls brought along friends, hoping to lessen the blow. "To this day George Sr. is the soft touch and I'm the enforcer," Mrs. Bush says. "I'm the one who writes them a letter and says 'Shape up!' He writes, 'You're marvelous'."

Mrs. Bush has also taken a great interest in the fortunes of Laura Bush. Friends say she initially worried whether the quiet, bookish young schoolteacher would fit in when W first brought her home to meet the family. But she is now very fond--and protective--of the woman who was able to tame her son. The two speak often on the telephone and trade books. Before the presidential debates, she told her daughter-in-law to make sure she was the first to shake hands with the wives of her husband's foes.

For a woman closing in on 80, Barbara Bush keeps up a hectic schedule. She gives several speeches a month to business groups--commanding $60,000 apiece. She's also at work on a memoir about life after the White House, and devotes hours each week to charity, including the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, which raised $2.2 million in its annual fund-raiser last week.

She has resisted those who have urged her to campaign for Republican candidates, vowing to stump only for her own sons. In recent months she has made several trips to Florida for the family's other political heavyweight, Gov. Jeb Bush, who is running for re-election against Janet Reno.

In Texas, Barbara Bush is regarded as a kind of Queen Mum. Last week she gave a speech to an over-60 lunch club at the posh Houstonian hotel. Over the years, she has polished her lines to perfection, and she has a stand-up's timing. At one point she ran down the list of groups she's spoken to: "My absolute favorite: the National Association of Plastic Surgeons. I was scared to death," she deadpanned. "I thought they were going to rush the stage."

But during the question-and-answer session afterward, Mrs. Bush couldn't quite hide her disdain for the way people fawned over her, calling her "tremendous" and gushing how much they adored her. "She doesn't like it," says Lud Ashley, a longtime family friend. "She knows better. She's not gracious to people like that. She thinks it's idiotic." Usually, she takes the compliments with a smile. Even as First Lady, there were occasional cracks in the facade. As she worked the crowd at one public event, an admirer leaned toward her and spoke the dreaded words: "Mrs. Bush, I want to send you a Mother's Day card." It was more than she could bear. "Send it to your own mother," she grumbled. "I'm not your mother." America's grandmother, it seems, is only too happy to give up the job.