Having spawned a U.S. senator, a governor and two U.S. presidents, the Bush family know all about the power of words. And there’s one particular phrase that has proven to be a great source of comfort for the Bushes following the loss of its two most senior figures. So here’s a look at the heartrending story behind the unusual expression.
The Bush family’s rise to power began with Prescott Bush in the mid-20th century. Formerly an executive investment banker on the New York Stock Exchange, Prescott was elected in 1952 to act for Connecticut in the U.S. Senate. He then helped to launch the Interstate Highway System, among other things, during his two-term run, which came to an end in 1963.
But Prescott’s achievements were later dwarfed by those of his son and grandson. For one thing, his son, George H. W. Bush, was born in 1924 and served in the Navy during World War II. And after graduating from Yale University, George H. W. also pursued a career in the oil industry. Then, having amassed a seven-figure net worth by the time he’d turned 40, Bush switched his attention to the world of politics.
Yet although he lost his first attempt to reach the U.S. Senate in 1964, George H. W. was eventually elected to the 7th congressional district in Texas in the House of Representatives two years later. And in 1971 the then-president, Richard Nixon, selected him as a U.N. ambassador. He later also landed the positions of Republican National Committee chairman, chief of the Liaison Office in China and Central Intelligence director.
Despite this, though, George H. W.’s first presidential attempt, in 1980, ended in a Republican primary defeat to Ronald Reagan. He did, however, spend the following eight years as vice president and, in 1988, finally became the incumbent POTUS. His reign at the top was then largely defined by his foreign policies. These included George H. W. authorizing military action in the Persian Gulf as well as witnessing the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In the 1992 election, though, George H. W. lost out on a second term to Bill Clinton. But the Bush family didn’t have to wait long to rise to power again. Just eight years later, in fact, George W. Bush – Prescott’s grandson and George H. W.’s son – took on the role of commander in chief. This meant that the Georges became the first father-and-son presidents since John Adams and John Quincy Adams in the early 19th century.
Interestingly, George W., who was born in 1946, had actually followed in his father’s footsteps in more ways than one. He’d also, for instance, studied at Yale University before establishing a career in the oil industry. And although in the late 1970s he’d lost his first run for the United States House of Representatives, he’d later won the 1994 Texas gubernatorial election against Ann Richards.
George W. had then enjoyed a five-year spell as the 46th Governor of Texas before, in 2000, becoming the 43rd President of the United States. But just eight months into his presidency, George W. notoriously had to deal with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And as a result, he later announced a War on Terror, which eventually led to the 2003 Iraq War.
Yet in 2004 George W. did what his father couldn’t when he won a second term as POTUS. But things still didn’t get any easier for him. You see, he then had to combat the country’s longest recession since the Second World War as well as the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that by the time George W. left the White House he had recorded some of the highest and lowest approval ratings in U.S. presidential history.
But of course, the Bush family’s connection with U.S. politics doesn’t end there. Between 1999 and 2007, for instance, George H. W.’s second son, Jeb, had earned the job as the 43rd governor of Florida. And in 2015 he’d even briefly launched a bid to become the Bushes’ third U.S. president. That same year, too, Jeb’s son George had assumed the commissioner role in the Texas General Land Office.
Sadly, however, 2018 proved to be something of an annus horribilis for the Bush family. In April of that year, you see, matriarch Barbara Bush passed away aged 92 following various health battles. Since 1988, in fact, she had suffered from Graves’ disease, congestive heart failure and pneumonia and had had to undergo both small intestine and aortic valve replacement surgeries.
Born in New York in 1925, Barbara had met George H. W. in her mid-teens. The pair had then walked down the aisle together in 1945 and three years later moved to Texas – just before George had started pursuing his political ambitions. So she’d naturally become the First Lady of the United States when he’d won the top job.
And like several of her first lady predecessors, Barbara had taken an active role in politics herself. Seemingly more liberal than her husband’s party, she had, for instance, campaigned for social justice, sided towards pro-choice in the abortion debate and fought for civil rights. She’d also launched a campaign to tackle illiteracy.
Barbara and George H. W. also had six children together, including Jeb, Neil, Marvin and Dorothy. And the Bush kids had later brought their fair shares of heartache and joy into the family. The pain no doubt came when Barbara and George H. W.’s second child, Pauline, a.k.a Robin, had passed away from leukemia aged just three. Yet there had probably been delight when their firstborn, George W., had made Barbara just the second female in American history to be a spouse and a parent to U.S. presidents.
In 2015, too, Barbara had attempted to create more history by hitting the presidential campaign trail for son Jeb. Despite her advancing years, in fact, Barbara had worked to support her son’s unsuccessful effort to land the Republican nomination. Unsurprisingly, then, in 2017 both she and her husband had received a standing ovation at the Super Bowl.
The beloved Bush matriarch was also much mourned after her death. She was in fact buried at the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas following a funeral service at Houston’s St. Martin’s Episcopal Church. Past presidents and first ladies Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack and Michelle Obama were in attendance, as was the current first lady, Melania Trump. But this sadly wouldn’t be the only time in 2018 that the Bushes would suffer a major loss.
In November 2018, you see, Barbara’s husband, George H. W. Bush, passed away at his Houston home at the age of 94. He had been battling a form of Parkinson’s disease known as vascular parkinsonism since around 2012. He’d consequently spent his final years restricted to a wheelchair or motorized scooter.
A few days after his death, George H. W. lay in state at the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, becoming the 12th U.S. president to do so. His funeral service also took place at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, and he was later buried alongside his wife at the Presidential Library named after him. All five surviving U.S. presidents attended the ceremony.
Both Barbara and George H. W. received a whole host of glowing tributes following their deaths too. President Donald Trump, for instance, said in a statement that the former was “an advocate of the American family” who “will be long remembered for her strong devotion to country and family.” Meanwhile, daughter-in-law Laura Bush tweeted of Barbara, “The world is poorer without her in it.”
One of the most heartwarming tributes came from son George W., though. He tweeted, “My dear mother has passed on at age 92. Laura, Barbara, Jenna and I are sad, but our souls are settled because we know hers was. I’m a lucky man that Barbara Bush was my mother. Our family will miss her dearly, and we thank you all for your prayers and good wishes.”
Several former presidents released statements paying their respects to George H. W. too. Barack Obama even said that George H. W.’s life was “a testament to the notion that public service is a noble, joyous calling” and that “he did tremendous good along the journey.” Bill Clinton added that he would be “forever grateful for the friendship we formed.” And Jimmy Carter remarked that George H. W.’s presidency was “marked by grace, civility and social conscience.”
But perhaps the most creative tributes to George H. W. and Barbara came from cartoonist Marshall Ramsey. The artist’s initial drawing, published in the Clarion Ledger, actually went viral in the wake of the former first lady’s death. The image shows Barbara’s late daughter, Robin, greeting her at the Pearly Gates.
After Barbara’s granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager shared the picture, Marshall responded on Facebook. “Glad you like it – that means a lot to me. Your grandmother was like our grandmother,” he wrote. “My heart is going out to you and your whole family today. What a special lady she was and what an awesome legacy she left behind. God bless you.”
Marshall also later offered a similarly touching tribute to George H. W. Referencing the ex-president’s stint in the Navy, the artist’s cartoon features him reuniting with his late wife and daughter in heaven having flown there in a TBM Avenger. Once again, granddaughter Jenna posted the picture on social media.
Marshall told The Washington Post, “It seems like I’ve [drawn] so many obituary cartoons this year; 2018 has been cruel. But since the last one was so well-received by the Bush family and by parents who had lost children, I wanted to make sure this one was right. I consider this cartoon and the [Barbara one] to be bookends.”
Jenna also posted her own emotional tribute on Instagram, referencing the auntie whom she never knew. She said, “Robin was the daughter this giant of a man lost years before to leukemia. The little girl he held tightly, who spoke the phrase I have heard Gampy repeat for my entire life, forever knitting Robin’s voice into the tightly woven fabric of our family.”
“I love you more than tongue can tell.” That was the phrase that had been passed on through generations of the Bush family. These eights words come from a children’s poem named “Which Loved Best?” by Joy Allison. And they’d also been some of Robin’s final words before her tragic death in 1953.
In 41: A Portrait of My Father, George W. revealed that he had also often heard the phrase himself. He wrote, “Dad would repeat those words for the rest of his life.” The 41st president had also quoted the line in letters he’d wrote to both George W. and Jeb at important times in their political careers.
During a 2018 chat on NBC’s Today, too, Jenna had asked her grandfather whom he had wanted to meet in heaven first. George H. W. had answered: Barbara, then his mother and then Robin. He’d even wondered whether his daughter would appear to him as a fully grown woman or as the “chubby, vivacious child” he remembered.
George H. W. had also told Today’s viewers that his wife Barbara had banned crying from the hospital room that Robin had been being treated in during her final days. Barbara apparently hadn’t wanted her young daughter to become disturbed by seeing her family shedding tears. The 41st president admitted that he’d found this rule tough and had often had to step outside the room to gather his composure.
“We used to laugh and wonder if Robin thought [George H. W.] had the weakest bladder in the world,” Barbara once said. “Not true. He just had the most tender heart.” Barbara had also credited her husband for putting her back together following the death of their daughter.
Both George H. W. and Barbara had previously also referenced their tragedy in several political speeches. In 1988, for instance, the latter told the Republican National Convention, “The hardest thing we ever faced together was the loss of a child. I was very strong over the months we were trying to save her – at least, I thought I was. Maybe I was just pretending.”
Barbara had also written in her memoir about the harrowing moment when Robin had passed away. “Eventually the medicine that was controlling the leukemia caused other terrible problems,” she wrote. “We called [George H. W.], and by the time he got there after flying all night, our baby was in a coma. Her death was very peaceful. One minute she was there, and the next she was gone.”
Barbara added, “I truly felt her soul go out of that beautiful little body. For one last time I combed her hair, and we held our precious little girl. I never felt the presence of God more strongly than at that moment.” Following Robin’s passing, Barbara had worked with the Leukemia Society of America in the field of cancer research.
In 1990 George H. W. had also given a speech about the HIV/AIDS crisis in which he’d referred to his own loss. He said, “When our own daughter was dying of leukemia, we asked the doctor the same question every HIV family must ask: why, why this was happening to our beautiful little girl?”
“There is only one way to deal with an individual who is sick: with dignity, compassion, care, confidentiality, and without discrimination,” George H.W. added. This had been the only public occasion throughout his White House term in which he’d referred to his daughter Robin using her name. However, it had been a different story when it came to his own private correspondence.
Indeed, George H. W. had occasionally mentioned Robin’s birthday in his private diaries. On the day he’d announced his bid for the U.S. presidency, for instance, he’d written, “Bar looks beautiful. Thirty-four years ago today, Robin died.” George H. W. had also repeated the “I love you more than tongue can tell” phrase regularly in the love letters he’d often penned to Barbara.
Following George H.W.’s death, in fact, his eponymous library released audio of Barbara reading out one of his letters. It begins, “There is about our house a need. We need some soft blonde hair to offset those crew cuts. We need a doll house to stand firm against our forts and racquets and thousand baseball cards.”
Barbara’s letter continues, “We need a girl. We had one once… Her hugs were a just little less wiggly. But she is still with us. We need her and yet we have her; we can’t touch her and yet we can feel her. We hope she’ll stay in our house for a long, long time.”
During the last few days of his illustrious life, George H. W. had reportedly declared that he’d wanted to “go be with Barbara and Robin.” And like Robin, the last words he’d uttered had also been of a loving nature. After speaking to George W. on the phone, in fact, he’d told his eldest son, “I love you, too.”