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It was early August, just days after Saddam Hussein's armored columns rumbled into Kuwait, and Barbara Bush was already ensconced at Walker's Point, the First Family's six-acre compound on the Maine coast at Kennebunkport. Perched on the edge of her bed, her springer spaniel Millie at her feet, Barbara and friend Betsy Heminway watched TV as George Bush wrangled with reporters at the White House. "I can't believe that's the President of the United States," Heminway said, giving Barb a nudge. "Don't you every now and then say, 'That's my husband, the President of the United States?' "

"Yes," Barbara answered, as the full gravity of the crisis—and her husband's critical role in it—loomed larger. "It's amazing. It's still amazing."

Amazed as she may be that the first man she ever kissed now occupies the Oval Office, it comes as little surprise that Barbara Pierce Bush has taken to the job of First Lady as if to the White House born. After more than a year and a half on the job, Barbara, 65, has proved herself much more than the quintessential political wife; she has weathered the shocks of the last 20 months with grace, dignity and smarts. First came a diagnosis that she had Graves disease, a thyroid condition that brought on double vision and swollen eyes. Then there was the flap over whether she should be the speaker at last spring's Wellesley College commencement. The latest travail—and the one most disturbing to the First Lady—is that son Neil, 35, has been implicated in the failure of a Colorado savings and loan. She has sailed through it all, endearing herself to a nation that apparently can't quite get enough of her.

The irony is that the woman who is arguably the most popular in the land may well be so for the wrong reasons. Think of Barbara Bush, and the picture that comes to mind is of a warm, white-haired mother of five and doting grandmother of 12, folding her sturdy 5'8" frame into a child's chair, her low-heeled pumps tossed aside in favor of fuzzy slippers as she reads stories to a clutch of 4-year-olds.

But behind the image of Betty Crocker domesticity is a tough-minded, even tart-tongued patrician—a formidable presence whose impeccably dressed aides know she does not suffer fools or foolishness easily. The Silver Fox is indeed a shrewdly intelligent woman who has learned the lessons of politics and chosen to stand on the sidelines for the sake of her man.

Barbara, in the eyes of one family friend, is "a combination of gentleness and steel." If popularity ratings—in which she has at times outranked the President—are any indication, Americans agree it's a mix suited to the times, whether she's helping George get through the Persian Gulf crisis while at Kennebunkport or backing him up at the Helsinki summit. "Barbara Bush is who she is and proud of it. and everyone respects that," says Ruth Mandel, director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. "She belongs to a class of wives rapidly decreasing in number and unlikely to be seen in the White House in years to come—women who are known as symbols of family life, fulfilled in that role and satisfied with just that."

"Some typical summer," sighs Barbara as she settles into an armchair in the elegant West Sitting Hall of the White House, ready to begin an interview with PEOPLE. Early September light fills the formal room. The walls glow with American and French masters, including a Cézanne and a Monet, part of the White House collection. Side tables are graced with her treasured collection of tiny silver pillboxes and framed photos of the whole Bush brood. As always, Millie and her son Ranger—who recently assumed the post of Second Dog after outgrowing the "tiny little house" in Alexandria, Va., where he lived for a while with the Bushes' youngest son, Marvin—are lolling nearby. It is Mrs. Bush's first day back in Washington after the tumultuous month at Kennebunkport. While the President tended to the turmoil in the Gulf, for her it had been business as usual: watching over home, hearth and, all told, 12 visiting grandchildren, reveling in the pleasures of family and providing an oasis of calm.

The days were long and full. Some began in the middle of the night, when George was jarred awake by phone calls from anxious aides delivering the latest news. But most others started, mercifully, at 5:30 A.M., when the dogs charged into the bedroom. "My eyes would open," says Barbara, "and I'd go out and push the automatic coffeepot down, feed the dogs, walk them. Then we'd climb back in bed and read the papers, and the grandchildren all came down. We have that hour where we're watching the news and the kids are listening to their grandfather." How did she explain the Gulf crisis to the grandkids? "I reminded them that a perfectly peaceful country was sitting there and another country invaded it, and that we cannot have that." The morning lessons fell to Barbara because George was often on the phone. "You know, you're not 'away' in this job," she says, "no matter where you are. [The President] even talked to one head of state from aboard the boat."

For that reason, Barbara bridles at the criticism her husband received for continuing his planned three-week vacation at Walker's Point—where he has visited nearly every summer of his life. "There is a certain stability about Maine, and that was a reason George was there," she says. "He just wanted to put [things] in the right perspective. You know, this is not the United States against Saddam Hussein, this is the world against Saddam Hussein. I think occasionally we forget that. George stayed in Maine because it sent the right message."

Right message or no, being in the idyllic retreat in Kennebunkport didn't spare Barbara or her husband the worry of knowing that thousands of U.S. soldiers and reservists were heading off to the unknown dangers of the Gulf. "I hate it because families are being broken up. I feel just like any other mother would. How do you think George feels—that's what kills me—because he really feels each one of those [sons and daughters] are his," she says. "Of course I worried about George, and of course I was just as worried as he about every single [hostage]. But I had enormous faith in him."

Minding the children, of course, left only so much time for worrying. "It's very hard with 12 people asking if they can have a Popsicle or something at the darnedest moments," she says. Taking the Bushlets shopping for back-to-school clothes, making sure they did their summer reading (Noelle Bush, Jeb and Columba's 13-year-old, read Tom Sawyer) and instructing them how to greet royalty was no problem. The real challenge was getting them away from the house while George met with aides and a succession of visiting foreign dignitaries, including Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Jordan's King Hussein and Saudi Arabia's Prince Saud. "They were so excited," says Barbara of the kids. "Who could imagine what a full-fledged Arab prince looked like? But I kept the children at the beach all day long. I thought it was a genius job on my part keeping them entertained."

Efficient and organized, Bar managed to make the most of her holiday—dutifully keeping up with her diary, foraging in local antiques shops with Betsy Heminway (the wife of Greenwich, Conn., businessman Spike Heminway, a Bush friend from way back), catching up on a low-and middlebrow summer reading list that included Sidney Sheldon's Memories of Midnight, the Slim Keith autobiography, Slim, and Scott Turow's The Burden of Proof. "I would not say I intellectually grew much," she says with a laugh. Determined to keep fit, she worked out like a demon, swimming a mile every morning in the pool, riding a stationary bike an hour a day and, at precisely 4 P.M. daily, popping a stretching and toning tape in the VCR and going at it for an hour with friends, the occasional grandchild and Millie. "I really built myself up, darn it, to be very strong," she says. Obviously such strength can be useful; she uses it to deflect questions about her health, after explaining that her double vision has been corrected by radiation therapy and medication. "Don't argue with me," she threatens playfully at one point, "because I could throw you right over my shoulder. Nobody takes me on now."

As for taking care of George and helping him unwind, that didn't take much. "Long ago, he learned you do the best you can and then move on," Barbara says, adding that the stresses of the job are "not something he lets eat at him." She has found that the best medicine for George is a little indulgence. "I permit him to go bluefishing and play golf, and I laugh at it. We have a lot of fun as a family, and I think that's relaxing."

Family has been Barbara's singular devotion since, in true storybook fashion, she met, danced with and instantly fell in love with George Herbert Walker Bush at a Greenwich Christmas party in 1942. A child of upscale Rye, N.Y., the daughter of Marvin, a publisher of McCall's, and his wife, Pauline, Barbara dropped out of Smith College two years later to marry George, a naval aviator. And so began their 45-year union as she followed his brilliant career from Texas oilman to Congressman to U.S. envoy to China, CIA director, Ronald Reagan's dutiful Veep and, ultimately, President. She lived in 29 houses, managed a Cub Scout den and drove untold car pools. In 1953 the Bushes endured the death of their 4-year-old daughter, Robin, from leukemia.

Her compassion and gentle touch has made Barbara her husband's staunchest defender, and she extends that protectiveness to all her children. She will barely broach the subject of 31-year-old daughter Dorothy's divorce this summer from Billy LeBlond, nor will she discuss reports that in September 1989 Doro was the target of Colombian drug cartels that threatened to kidnap one of the Bush children. She flushes indignantly over the allegations against son Neil, who served as a director of a now failed Colorado savings and loan. "I'm not going to talk about it," she says crisply—but before she can stop herself she declares it "outrageous" that such a "wonderful, decent, honest man" is getting a raw deal largely because his parents "chose to get into political life." She smiles with maternal pride, though, when she acknowledges a rumor that son Marvin, 33, nearly resorted to fisticuffs defending Neil's honor and that brother Jeb, 37, was so ready to join the fray that "we had to hold him back." Characteristically, her moments of protectiveness are followed by warm comments about the closeness of her increasingly extended family. "We just love our children, and they know it," she says. "Someone once said to me that they didn't know another family where all five siblings love each other so much. And that's true. If push comes to shove, they're all there for each other."

And Barbara is there for all of them—but especially George. Often that means keeping opinions to herself, even though such restraint doesn't come easy to a woman of her independence. She has said that she "muzzled" herself in 1967, when George entered Congress. But shortly after arriving at the White House, in January 1989, she told reporters that she "absolutely" favored banning military-style assault weapons after five children were gunned down in a Stockton, Calif., schoolyard. Though Barbara has usually refrained since then from speaking out on such issues, she hasn't always been able to stifle herself. Last May, when she responded to a letter from the Federation of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays by saying that "we cannot tolerate discrimination against any individuals," her reply distressed GOP conservatives and White House aides who perceived her letter as an implicit sanction of gay life-styles.

These days, Barbara's public remarks are so measured that virtually everyone is left guessing about her convictions on matters such as abortion. Her reticence especially rankles those who suspect there is a moderate voice in the First Family who could gain the attention of both the President and the public. Predictably, Barbara won't answer the charges directly. "I really feel very strongly that the person who runs for office is the courageous one, and the one who everybody has to know," she says. "The person who loves him most in life ought to agree with him in public."

And so Barbara pours most of her energy into her studiously noncontroversial project—combating illiteracy. Echoing her husband's campaign call for "a thousand points of light," the First Lady has indeed spurred people to action: Reading Is Fundamental, a nonprofit group that distributes free books, confirms that her patronage has helped boost its volunteer corps from 96,000 in 1988 to more than 111,000 this year. Since March 1989 her Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, which receives corporate and private donations, has issued $500,000 in grants to reading programs across the country. Moreover, all the proceeds from the recently published Millie's Book will be donated to the foundation. The canine's tome—which was actually written by Mrs. Bush—tells Millie's view of life in the White House. This is the second book by a Bush dog; in 1984 the family cocker spaniel, C. Fred Bush (since deceased), published his story under the subtitled Dog's Life. Last month Barbara began hosting a 10-segment Sunday evening radio show, Mrs. Bush's Story Time, in which she reads aloud favorite children's book selections.

She also continues to cultivate the image of First Lady as down-to-earth Everywoman. She is still into "grubby things" like gardening and keeps a compost heap and a mulching machine at Kennebunkport. She loves America's Funniest Home Videos but remains baffled after sampling The Simpsons. "It was the dumbest thing I had ever seen," she says, "but it's a family thing, and I guess it's clean." True, she hasn't driven a car in 10 years and concedes she "hasn't really done housework" or " 'even seen a sandwich bag" in almost as long. But she can still whip up a scrumptious apple crisp, and like most figure-conscious American women has fessed up to "fighting the battle of the bulge every day."

She has, however, made, a few concessions to life under the spotlight. She has her own hairdresser, Yves Graux. Although she donates the family's cast-off clothing to a local charity, the First Lady also stocks her closets with designer dresses from Arnold Scaasi and Bill Blass. Nancy Reagan had similar fashion ambitions and was skewered for them. But Nancy was always viewed as a social-climbing parvenu; Barbara, by contrast, has a blue blood's rock-solid confidence. Perhaps as a result, her Park Avenue wardrobe seldom draws any public comment.

Whatever the future brings—including, the electorate willing, a second term as First Lady—Barbara insists that she will continue to be her unpretentious self, the kind of woman who walks the dogs every morning and night around the White House in her bathrobe, who can't make a decent piecrust but doesn't worry about it. I'm going to be next to George Bush wherever he is," she says. "I might disagree with him enormously. And when we do, which is so rare now, we do it quietly where nobody could hear. I believe that's part of loyalty," she says, pausing, a softness coming into her voice. "It's a little old-fashioned, but it's part of faithfulness and love..." and, she adds quickly, "honor—not obey."

—Paula Chin, Maria Wilhelm in Washington, with additional reporting from the PEOPLE Washington bureau

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  • Maria Wilhelm.