Yesterday Barbara Bush was laid to rest, reminding many of us that strong opinions and good humor can happily coexist.
I have felt a curious closeness to Mrs. Bush for many years (though we never actually met), as she was the commencement speaker at my graduation from Wellesley. Raisa Gorbachev joined Mrs. Bush as a speaker, which, for anyone who grew up in the Cold War era, was miraculous.
This momentous visit was not met with universal acclaim on campus, however, because Mrs. Bush was best known for being, well, Mrs. Bush. After four years of deep steeping at a college where one key message is that a woman need not be defined by a man she chooses to marry, the First Lady was coming to send us out into the world. Hmmm.
Mrs. Bush’s speech that day was very well delivered, and very well researched, full of Wellesley-specific references that I only recently have come to realize are not common knowledge the whole world over. It was also blessedly short, and it quoted Ferris Bueller. But when she noted, “perhaps someone in this audience will preside over the White House as the President’s spouse…” you could feel the tension rising in the audience. And then she concluded, with perfect timing, “…and I wish him well.” Talk about winning hearts and minds!
Of course, the biggest message in this address was not a spoken one. Mrs. Bush did not lecture us about manners, or open-mindedness, or how to handle unfriendly hosts. She was not petty or haughty or resentful at having to address these ungrateful “spinster tartlets” (as we students were labeled in the ever-constructive Boston Globe). She generously offered grace and wisdom and perspective and good humor and understanding – and kindness.
And that, far and away, is the greatest commencement lesson ever.