Tom Pennington/Getty Images(HOUSTON) — The first time I had a formal interview with Barbara Bush she was the “second lady” and her husband was running for president. I had accepted an assignment from Seventeen Magazine to query the wives of the two major candidates and it had all been arranged through Mrs. Bush’s staff.

But when I arrived at the (somewhat intimidating) vice president’s mansion Barbara Bush exclaimed, “Seventeen! Why are we doing this interview? They can’t vote!” After that somewhat rocky start, we had a lively conversation where I was treated to her ready humor.

That humor is part of the reason America came to love Barbara Bush. Soon after he left the White House I was interviewing President Bush about something and he marveled with a hint of surprise in his voice, “The whole country loves Bar!”

That’s because everyone thought they knew her. There was none of that fake politician foolishness about her. On several occasions she told me bluntly that I needed to do something about my hair. She either said what she believed or kept her mouth shut.

One thing she believed passionately was that she could make a difference in the lives of people who couldn’t read. And she was right. The Barbara Bush Literacy Foundation now conducts 160 programs in 12 states and it has been highly successful in improving the reading skills of adults and bringing disadvantaged preschoolers up to par with their more privileged peers.

Barbara Bush herself attended hundreds and hundreds of events aimed at boosting literacy because, as she said, you can’t achieve the American dream if you can’t read and write.

That was another passionate belief — in the dream and the promise that this country offers to its citizens. Her devotion to our American values of tolerance and inclusion and her willingness to act on them came second only to devotion to family.

When her son George was running for president, I conducted the first joint interview with Barbara and Laura Bush. Laura was understandably slightly nervous about this conversation with her formidable mother-in-law (the family calls her The Enforcer) but she needn’t have been.

Anytime I asked about anything controversial the elder Mrs. Bush jumped in: “Don’t answer that Laura, it will only get you in trouble. If anyone gets in trouble today it should be me.” The whole extended Bush brood could count on her protection.

And America saw that — saw her love of children and country, and especially of her husband, saw her no-nonsense looks, heard her funny, feisty and frank comments and understood that she was teaching us how to live.

In the end, she also taught us how to die. By telling us on Sunday that she would opt for “comfort care” rather than more medical intervention she set yet another example. Instead of leaving this earth hooked up to machines while doctors poked and prodded to extract one more breath, she went in her own home surrounded by the family she devoted her life to, holding the hand of the man she had loved for 75 years.

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