Page offers intimate portrait of Barbara Bush

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Book Reviewer

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Barbara Pierce and George Herbert Walker Bush were married in a twice-postponed ceremony on Jan. 6, 1945, after having duly sent out invitations and press announcements for a wedding in mid-December.

The pressure of family wartime commitments that postponed the wedding validated the bond between Bush, a 20-year-old pilot, veteran of 58 combat missions, and Barbara Pierce, a 19-year-old Smith student — and laid the foundation for the making of a dynasty.

Whether she liked the word or not, it is undeniable that Barbara Bush was the matriarch of an American dynasty — defined not only by politics, but also by public service by her children and grandchild. Her power was less direct, wielded in private; still, she stands alongside such women as Abigail Adams, Edith Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton as a presidential spouse who had great impact on America.

Like so many of the women of her generation, her contribution to her husband’s achievements were routinely undervalued. An independent thinker, she did not always see eye to eye with her husband’s conservatism on right to life, nor the way the Republican Party was moving too far to the right.

Susan Page has written an informative and intimate study of Barbara Bush, whom she considers the most underestimated First Lady of modern times. In “The Matriarch” (TwelveBooks; $32.50), Page makes it clear that Barbara Bush had a role in some of the most important events of our age. As the wife of one president and mother of another occupant of the Oval Office, Barbara Bush is part of an era of worldwide transformation that stretches from Reagan’s revolution to the current occupant of the White House.

During the years that a Bush occupied the office, Barbara Bush had the ear of her spouse as he was finessing the end of the Cold War; she questioned the advice her son Iraq was getting on Iraq and its bloody consequence.

The author’s research shows a child whose social-climbing mother constantly criticized her third child, Barbara, for her looks, style and weight; doting on her older daughter who was slim and pretty and had blonde curls. Barbara’s difficult mother left her with lifelong insecurities about her looks and her weight. Despite her mother’s opinion, George H.W. Bush saw her as beautiful, and his love deflected many of her self doubts.

Barbara Bush was not quite comfortable in the increasingly feminist world, so she chose to have a family and leave decision-making to George Bush. Like most men of the post WWII generation, he knew she would go along with him. He did not consult her about moving to Texas where she stayed home to raise their family while her husband set off to make a name for himself in the oil business and politics. Barbara Bush, soccer mother, Cub Scout den mother, Little League cheerleader, would lose a beautiful little 3-year-old to leukemia, a tragedy that the Bushes would never get over — yet she soldiered on to see two of her sons become president of the United States and governor of Florida.

Over the years, Barbara Bush became an astute campaign strategist and her husband’s most valued advisor as he served in Congress, at the United Nations and in China and won the White House for a term. When Bush was UN ambassador and vice president, Barbara Bush stayed away from offering advice on foreign policy, but she set out to forge ties that could be helpful.

She opened the family retreat in Maine to visitors from Canada, Great Britain, Denmark, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Some of the leaders in negotiations to end the Cold War give Barbara Bush credit for helping in ways the public never saw. Page devotes a chapter to the sensitive matter of detente, and how Barbara Bush, according to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl “The wife of Bush contributed greatly to the calming. It was not always like that in the White House ...”

The biography offers scenarios that demonstrate the many sides of a fascinating and complex subject with a big heart for family and friends and a thick grudge pad of names of those who had hurt members of her family or who offended her sense of values and honesty.

The book is generously illustrated, contains an introduction, epilogue, acknowledgements, notes bibliography and index.

Susan Page is an award-winning journalist and the Washington Bureau of USA Today, where she writes about politics and the White House. She has served as president of the White House Correspondents Association, chairman of the Robert F, Kennedy Journalism Awards and president to the Gridiron Club, the oldest association of journalists in Washington. She twice has served as a juror for the Pulitzer Prizes.


An Excerpt

When George W. Bush became president in 2001, his father declared that he wasn’t going to offer advice unless his son asked for it, a promise the elder George Bush kept even when he was worried the younger George Bush was headed off-track. But Barbara Bush sometimes weighed in with the new president and the new First Lady. The time would come when each of them would push back.

For Laura Bush, that moment came sooner than it did for her husband.

Early in the new administration, Barbara heard complaints about Laura Bush’s top staffer. Andi Ball had been highly regarded as chief of staff of George W. Bush’s gubernatorial office, but she was new to Washington, and she was struggling in the same role for the First Lady. Relations between the East Wing and the West Wing were fraying.

Barbara Bush sent word that Laura Bush should replace Andi Ball. Laura Bush sent word back that it wasn’t her call to make. The message was clear, a boundary drawn.

At the beginning of George W. Bush’s first term, there were sometimes tensions between the current First Lady and the former one, according to someone who had conversations about it with both the elder and the younger presidents Bush. But in the end, he said, “they came to a good place.” Barbara Bush backed off — on official matters, if not family ones.

“If you know her at all, you know she would probably really love to give advice,” Laura Bush said of her mother-in-law. But Barbara Bush was herself “the daughter-in-law of a very strong ... mother-in-law and I think she knows that daughter-in-laws don’t really want a lot of advice.” After all, as a bride Barbara Bush had moved to Texas from New England, away from the realm of her husband’s mother. She revered Dorothy Walker Bush, but she also wanted to cut her own path.

Barbara Bush told me that she realized Laura didn’t need her advice. “She saw it for years, and she was the governor’s wife,” she said, adding “She’s much smarter than I am.”

Laura Bush had a stronger sense of self, and a stiffer spine, than her reserved manner might indicate. When asked during the 2000 campaign whether as First Lady she would follow the role model set by Barbara Bush or Hillary Clinton, she replied, “I think I’ll just be Laura Bush.”