Barbara Bush: A Life Focused on Politics, Literacy and Dogs

Barbara Bush's life was marked by her love of dogs and her social consciousness

Posted Apr 24, 2018

George Bush Presidential Library & Museum
Source: George Bush Presidential Library & Museum

I am sitting here staring at the cover of a book titled "C. Fred's Story: a Dog's Life". According to the information on the cover the book is "By C. Fred Bush" and it goes on to add that the book was "Edited Slightly by Barbara Bush". At the time it was written (1984) Barbara Bush's husband George H. W. Bush was vice president of the United States. I had pulled this book off of my library shelf this morning because of the news of her death at age 92 and I found myself remembering that interesting woman.

George Bush (Senior) would go on to become president, and most historians say that his public image was enhanced by his relationship with dogs. Some even suggest that his election to the presidency might never have happened without his canine connection. There is no doubt that George Bush clearly cherishes the company of his dogs, however it was his wife Barbara that created his image as a devoted and loving dog owner, at a time when he needed a more human and “common man” image.

As the vice-president it was clear that George Bush was going to be a strong contender for the Republican nomination for president when Ronald Reagan retired from office. Unfortunately for him, there was one potential cloud that hung over his career, and that was the period of time that he served as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency. Many Americans have suspicions about this organization, with movies and television programs often depicting CIA agents as evil and manipulative. According to the popular view the CIA is filled with unscrupulous and amoral agents who murder political dissenters and foment revolutions. In Hollywood films the head of the agency is typically shown as a villainous mastermind, who conceals the real truth from the Congress and the President and whose true goal is to take over the country or even the world. Bush’s political opponents, both in and out of his party, would often invoke this image to turn public opinion against him.

Bush’s wife Barbara, however, has always had a strong social commitment, as well as being politically astute. While her husband was still vice-president, she authored this book "C. Fred's Story". As indicated on the cover, the book was supposedly written by the Bush family’s Cocker Spaniel, C. Fred Bush. One clear motivation for the book was to raise funds for Barbara Bush’s campaign for literacy, and all of the proceeds that the book received were used to promote literacy. Ultimately the funds from this book and her next would lead to the creation of the family literacy foundation that was named after her. It was her belief that every man, woman, and child should have the opportunity to secure a better life, and she believed that the most vital tool for them to advance toward that goal was the ability to read.

The book, however, had nothing to do with literacy, but rather it was a dog’s eye view of the life of the vice-president written in the dog’s voice and accompanied by italicized commentaries from Barbara Bush. It was filled with charming anecdotes about George Bush’s ambassadorial service in China, about his political activities, especially during the election campaign, and about his duties as vice-president. There were many charming pictures of Fred and the Bush family, with the vice-president often frolicking with the dog, and introducing his pet to dignitaries. Even Bush’s most politically vulnerable year, as head of the CIA, was mentioned, however, in a chapter that consists of only three paragraphs in which, the dog, Fred, dismisses the entire episode with a light touch by noting:

“George told us nothing. He said Bar [Barbara] and I couldn’t keep a secret, therefore he didn’t tell us any. He was right about Bar. Her favorite sentence starts ‘Don’t tell George I told you, but…’ He was wrong about me. Later I met another director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Casey, and had an opportunity to tell him a lot of secrets.”

The effect of this book proved to be extremely helpful for George Bush’s image. It effectively shaped a public view of him as a loving and caring family member with a spunky pet dog who the Vice-President played with, rather than an evil spymaster. George Bush's biographer, Curt Smith, noted that the book also cast Barbara Bush in a sympathetic, down-home, dog and child loving light, which resulted in a bond between her and the American public that never dimmed over the rest of her lifetime.

Once George Bush was in the White House, Barbara would write another book, this one in the voice of C. Fred’s successor, the Springer Spaniel, Millie. Again the proceeds would go to the literacy foundation. Like C. Fred’s book "Millie's Book" gave an intimate verbal and photographic picture of now President Bush’s life from a pet’s perspective. The book achieved huge popularity, eventually becoming the number one title on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. Because of this Barbara and Millie managed to raise over a million dollars for the literacy programs and also produced a lot of favorable publicity for the president. Pictures of the president, Barbara, and Millie (along with her puppies), filled the popular press and improved Bush's popularity rating for many months.

Of course living with dogs never goes without some form of embarrassment, and one such occurred during a television interview on the ABC network. The interviewer, Sam Donaldson was speaking with Barbara Bush about the book, with the canine “author” Millie sitting on the sofa beside her in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House. Suddenly Millie jumped off, marched into the middle of the room, and squatted down to relieve herself. Donaldson unsuccessfully tried to stop her by shouting “Millie, stop that. We’re on national television… Millie!” Perhaps, because the cameras quickly swung away from the actual scene, and only focused on the distressed interviewer and embarrassed first lady, the incident was not strongly imprinted on the public’s consciousness. By the next morning the White House staff had cleaned up the stain on the carpet, while Barbara Bush appeared on yet another national television program in that same room. It was then that she explained away the previous day's incident by saying, "We try to get Millie to refrain from political commentary but sometimes she insists on voicing her opinions in her own way". However this time Millie acted with great decorum and the stain on her reputation also disappeared.

One interesting feature of Barbara's relationship to her dogs was the fact that they were treated much the way that the average person tends to treat their family pets. Jean Becker, the former president's chief of staff told People Magazine in 1997 that despite Millie's celebrity status, Barbara never let her lose touch with the common American canine. "She didn't eat gourmet meals, just regular dog food, and anyone in the world could come up and pet her."

In 2003, Barbara Bush opened a dog park in Houston in honor of her late pet, and it was naturally named the Millie Bush Park. According to a New York Times report, Houston locals remember Barbara as “a kind of straight-talking grandmother to the city, an approachable first lady out for a stroll in the sunshine, so genuinely earthbound that she herself [not someone from her Secret Service entourage] picked up after her dogs at the park.”

I opened up my copy of "C. Fred's Story" which she had given to me many years ago and written on the inside of the front cover was Barbara Bush's signature next to the paw print of the amber-colored cocker spaniel Fred. And, I thought to myself, as I have done several times before when I have held this book in my hand "A love of dogs and literacy seem like good things to be remembered for."

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

More Posts