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Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty
By Susan Page
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The congregation that filled St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston for Barbara Bush’s memorial service on April 21, 2018, was invitation-only. Seated in the pews were family, friends, and dignitaries, four former presidents, and the current First Lady. Television networks broadcast the service live; cable news channels featured retrospectives; world leaders issued tributes.
But most remarkable was what happened outside the spotlight. A day before the memorial service, thousands of mourners had stood in line to file past her silver casket and pay their respects. For a time, her widowed husband, former president George H. W. Bush, insisted on being there in his wheelchair to thank them. After the service, when the hearse pulled away for the one-hundred-mile drive to her burial site at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, the roads along the route were lined with regular folks saying farewell. Some held aloft signs they had written. “Welcome Home Barbara,” one read. “Pearls & Grace: Her Legacy Lives On!” said another. Many of the women wore pearls, real and fake, as an affectionate salute.
Two months later, her oldest son, George W. Bush, marveled at the memory. “It was unbelievable, an unbelievable outpouring of affection,” the nation’s forty-third president told me in an interview in his Dallas office. His mother had been largely out of the public eye for a quarter century, he noted. “What caused her, the wife of a one-term president, to be not only heralded as a great First Lady but loved? I don’t think there have been many of them like that.”
What made Barbara Pierce Bush resonate so with Americans?
She wasn’t a charismatic speaker or a classic beauty. Indeed, her self-deprecating humor about her cloud of white hair and her endless efforts to lose a few pounds were part of her signature. She never held public office.
But she was formidable, and she was fearless.
In the spring of 2000, billionaire financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein accompanied a group that included the former First Lady and two of her granddaughters, Lauren and Ashley, on safari in Africa. At one point during their stay at the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, a hippopotamus emerged from a watering hole in a way that looked threatening. “The Secret Service is saying, ‘It’s heading to Mrs. Bush. What do we do? Do we shoot it?’” Rubenstein told me.
Amid the fuss, Barbara Bush stood her ground.
“She didn’t seem to worry about a hippopotamus that might be charging at her,” Rubenstein recalled. “I think she felt she could out-intimidate the hippopotamus.”
Indeed, the hippo retreated.
Throughout her life, Barbara Bush spoke with strength, passion, and authority about both uncontroversial topics such as literacy and controversial ones including HIV/AIDS. She was quick with a quip—“Never ask anyone over seventy how they are feeling,” she cautioned, adding, “They’ll tell you”—and had a tongue that sometimes got ahead of her. With all that, she emerged as one of the most authentic voices of her era. She also became one of the more influential women in American history, though her role often went unrecognized.
Her death came at a time when many Americans were worried about the nation’s embattled politics, which were becoming so fiercely partisan that few people in the public arena were by consensus deemed to be decent, honorable, and worthy of respect. Barbara Pierce Bush was clearly one of those few. One sign of the country’s poisonous climate was the quiet relief among many who loved her when President Donald Trump announced he wouldn’t attend the memorial service, citing a desire to avoid the disruptions of the added security, though First Lady Melania Trump was there.
Also seated in a front pew was Bill Clinton, a political foe who had become a family friend.
The Democratic opponent who ousted George H. W. Bush from the White House became an annual visitor to their summer home in Maine, although he acknowledged that Barbara Bush took more time to win over than her husband. She was “a person with a strong sense of right and wrong, not so much about political issues but about how to live a life, how to organize a family, how to persevere in the face of adversity, how to deal with the things that come to everyone,” Clinton told me. “She had a sense of how it ought to be done.”
Barbara Pierce was born to privilege in a tony New York City suburb, an indifferent student despite a high IQ, happily dropping out of college to marry the first boy she ever kissed. She followed George Bush to West Texas, where she was the parent who stayed home to raise their sizable family while her husband set off to make a name for himself. She was his essential partner as he built an oil business, won a seat in Congress, served as the top US diplomat at the United Nations and in China, was named director of the CIA, was elected vice president, and then ran for and won the White House. She would become only the second woman in history to be both the wife and the mother of presidents, and the only woman to live to see both her husband and a son in that high office.
Her life spanned a revolution in the roles of and opportunities for women. Her marriage, like many of its time, wasn’t a partnership of equals. She ran the household; he called the shots everywhere else. But over time she emerged from being a helpmate, willing to follow her husband’s decisions on where they would live and what he should do, to becoming a crucial adviser—perhaps his most crucial. “She’s about the only voice that he 100 percent trusted,” one of his closest White House aides said.
Most of those who knew them best say George Bush would have been unlikely to accomplish all he did, including becoming president, if he hadn’t married Barbara Pierce. “There is no George H. W. Bush without Barbara Bush,” grandson Pierce Bush told me. “Really, I don’t see my grandfather being able to attain what he did in life without my grandmother being there.”
Beyond the achievements, few knew about the grief Barbara Bush also suffered. The social bloodlines and the affluence and the political position were no protection from pain.
Her difficult mother left her with lifelong insecurities about her looks and her weight. The death from leukemia of daughter Robin, at age three, devastated her; for the rest of her life it would help shape everything from her impatience with prattle to her beliefs on abortion. Persistent rumors of infidelity involving the husband she adored were a source of anguish. She would suffer from serious depression for a time. Two of her children would go through messy divorces. One son would become ensnared in a savings and loan scandal. Another would battle a chronic, life-threatening disease. A beloved granddaughter would struggle with mental illness and drug abuse.
Through it all, she persevered. She was the glue that held her boisterous family together, in good times and bad. Like so many women of her day, her influence and her contribution to her husband’s successes were consistently undervalued—even by her fans. And by him. And by her.
After covering national politics over four decades, including six presidencies, I concluded that Barbara Bush was the public figure Americans felt they knew most but really understood least. Many embraced her as a down-to-earth grandmother who sported a triple strand of faux pearls and joked about her wrinkles. That soft-focus impression wasn’t inaccurate, but it was decidedly incomplete. In my view, she stands as the most underestimated First Lady of modern times.
And perhaps the most interesting.
In the summer of 2017, I wrote Barbara Bush, then ninety-two years old, to let her know that I was going to write this biography. She initially agreed to give me one interview, then a second, and then a third—five in all, once a month, in the living room or the den of her home in Houston. Her two tiny dogs, Bibi and Mini Me, notoriously ill-tempered to everyone but their mistress, were always in her lap or at her feet. (They were half Maltese, half poodle; the senior George Bush gave Mini Me her name because he said the dog that was a puff of white fur looked like his wife.)
At the end of our fifth interview, which turned out to be the last time I saw her, Barbara Bush unexpectedly granted me access to her diaries. She had begun collecting this account of her life in 1948. She had declared at the start that I wouldn’t be allowed to read the daily and weekly entries, and the personal papers and letters tucked in with them, that were archived at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. Those boxes and binders won’t be open to public view until 2053, thirty-five years after her death.
That meant I was able to read her diary entries about everything—even about this book. After our third interview, she wrote, “I talked to Susan Page who is writing a book about me. Boring.” (I hope “boring” was a bit of self-deprecation about herself and not a description of me, but I never had a chance to ask her.) After our final interview, she wrote, “I like her and hope she is kind to me.”
She encouraged family members and friends and former aides to talk with me. When her brother Scott Pierce asked her what he should say, she replied, “Just tell the truth.” I sat down with both presidents named Bush, and with President Clinton, and with her children and grandchildren—in all, with more than one hundred people whose lives intersected with hers.
I discovered that there was more about Barbara Bush, and her role in some of the most important events of our age, than I would have even guessed. This book is about what I found.
America’s saga was in her DNA.
Her direct ancestor Henry Samson, then sixteen years old, was one of the Pilgrims who arrived in the New World aboard the first voyage of the Mayflower, in 1620. During the Industrial Revolution, her paternal great-great-grandfather, General James Pierce, made a fortune in pig iron—that is, the first crude iron from a smelting furnace, shaped into bricks—though his sons would squander their inheritance. Her distant cousin Franklin Pierce was elected president during the years leading up to the Civil War, an unsettled time and one that historians would conclude he handled with catastrophic ineptitude.
She was born during the Roaring Twenties—just five years after women won the right to vote—and grew up during the Great Depression. Her father served in World War I, her boyfriend and her brother in World War II, and two of her grandsons in Afghanistan. As a teenager during World War II, she became one of the millions of women who joined the war effort at home, working one summer at a nuts-and-bolts factory; she fetched coffee for some of the same workers who on evenings and weekends would wait on her family at their private club. As a bride, she and her husband were among the flood of migrants who moved west for opportunity in the Sunbelt. Later, she would play a personal role in seven presidential campaigns.
No accounting of the era that stretches from the Reagan Revolution to the election of Donald Trump would be complete without an understanding of Barbara Pierce Bush.
For one thing, no other woman in American history has played such an intimate part in two White House administrations. Abigail Adams, like Barbara Bush, was the wife of one president and the mother of another. But of the two women, only Barbara could claim a role in both presidencies; Abigail died of typhoid six years before her son John Quincy Adams moved into the White House in 1825.
During the twelve years that a President Bush lived in the White House, the world would be transformed, then transformed again. George H. W. Bush managed with diplomatic finesse the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. George W. Bush led the nation’s response to the most devastating terror attack in its history and launched a war that would be vehemently disputed. Barbara Bush stood near the center of both administrations, forty-one and forty-three. She was never an ornament or a bystander, never just a leaf on the family tree. She had the ear of a pair of presidents in a way no other American has had, even if they weren’t always enthusiastic about hearing from her. She used her unique position to act at times as their protector, at times as their conscience.
She pressed her husband to pay more attention to homelessness and HIV/AIDS. She set out to forge a friendship with the didactic Raisa Gorbachev, an act of will that the German chancellor and Canadian prime minister credited with helping ease the superpower negotiations that closed the Cold War. She raised alarms with her son about the advice he was heeding on Iraq, a war that would undermine public support for his presidency. She cautioned both presidents about phonies and users. She could unnerve their senior aides with a pointed question or a dyspeptic look. She kept scores. Her words could sting and leave scars, even with those she loved.
“She is a strong woman, not ego-driven but protective of kith and kin,” White House speechwriter Peggy Noonan observed in What I Saw at the Revolution, her account of the Reagan era. “Those merry eyes, the warmth, the ability to get the help cracking in a jolly way, and then not so jolly. A lack of pretension, a breeziness, but underneath she is Greenwich granite, one of the women who settled the hard gray shores of the East and summoned roses from the rocks.”
Barbara Bush was both warm and tough, simultaneously grandmother and enforcer. She was organized and disciplined, focused and flexible. She built sprawling networks of friends and easily socialized with strangers, from foreign ambassadors at state dinners to factory workers on the campaign trail. She wasn’t flummoxed by abrupt changes in circumstance and locale, from Rye (New York) to Odessa (Texas) to Beijing (China) to the White House. She was comfortable with risk. Those are the qualities of successful CEOs and military commanders and political strategists and, indeed, presidents.
Had she been born a generation or two later, when opportunities were exploding for women in America, she might well have been any of those. “In a different time and a different era, my mother might have been president,” Jeb Bush told me in an interview in 1990, when it was his father who was president. She might have seen more room for personal ambition. She might have been less Barbara Pierce Bush and more, say, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Hillary Rodham was born a generation later. Just twenty-two years apart in age, she and Barbara Pierce stood on opposite sides of a social revolution. “She lived a full and exemplary life in every way, but she was of my mother’s generation,” Hillary Clinton told me. “It was just a divide that had really significant repercussions for young women my age, coming up at the time we did.” Clinton would succeed Barbara Bush as First Lady but then become a US senator, a secretary of state, and the first woman nominated for the presidency by a major political party. In a peculiar turn, one of the Republicans vying to oppose her in 2016 would be Barbara Bush’s second son, Jeb.
Barbara Bush’s profile was more traditional, her influence less direct, her power wielded more often in private, even clandestinely. Still, she stands as a historic figure. A list of the presidential spouses who have had the greatest impact on America would include her alongside such women as Abigail Adams, Edith Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nancy Reagan, and Hillary Clinton.
Her appeal transcended party lines in a way the candidates in her family could only yearn to emulate. Jeb Bush, the two-term governor of Florida and a GOP presidential hopeful in 2016, described a common phenomenon he encountered while waiting at airports. “I love your mother,” strangers would come up to tell him. “Occasionally I would say, ‘Well, what about my dad?’ ‘No, I love your mother.’ ‘What about my brother?’ ‘I really love your mother.’ ‘What about me?’ ‘Your mom is great.’”
That said, during the time she was most in the public eye, Barbara Bush did catch flak from critics—from Saturday Night Live comics who mocked her, and from young women in Wellesley’s class of 1990 who protested her as a commencement speaker. Some saw her as a throwback, “just a housewife,” defined by her marriage to a powerful man.
That’s one reason she had a complicated and not entirely friendly view of feminism and the women’s movement. She was wounded by the protests at Wellesley. She responded by delivering an enduring message that has been quoted in commencement addresses ever since: “At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal,” she said then. “You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend, or a parent.”
At the end of her life, Barbara Bush had few regrets.
The ranks of America’s political matriarchs include remarkable women, among them Sara Delano Roosevelt and Rose Kennedy. But “matriarch” was a title Barbara Bush rejected for herself, along with any suggestion that she led a dynasty. “Mother was pretty good about dealing with big shot–itis,” George W. Bush told me, “and there’s nothing more big-shotty than saying, ‘This is a dynasty.’”
Whether she liked the word or not, though, it is undeniable that Barbara Bush was the matriarch of an American dynasty—a dynasty defined not only by political office but also by public service of all sorts by her children and her grandchildren and others she influenced. Besides the White House, her sons were elected and reelected as governors of two of the nation’s largest states. One grandson was elected to statewide office in Texas. Another enlisted in the US Marines and was deployed to Afghanistan, dangerous duty that was never publicly disclosed. A third left a business career to become a leader in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. She bragged about the global health program one granddaughter cofounded, and the campaign to feed hungry children around the world that another granddaughter helped launch.
Her mind was sharp to the end, but her physical health was failing, her breathing more labored and her pain more apparent with each visit. She would pass away, peacefully, on April 17, 2018; her husband would die seven months later, on November 30. At the end of our first interview, in the autumn of 2017, I asked her, “What do you think the title of this book should be?”
She answered without missing a beat. “The Fat Lady Sings Again,” she said. And she smiled, pleased with herself.
Six Brutal Months
I don’t know what to do this morning,” three-year-old Robin told her mother on that March day in Midland. “I may go out and lie on the grass and watch the cars go by, or I might just stay in bed.”
Barbara Bush was preoccupied with Jebby, the baby brother who had been born just a few weeks earlier on February 11, 1953, and wasn’t yet sleeping through the night. Georgie was attending first grade at Sam Houston Elementary School, but Robin was still home with her mother all day, at the new house on West Ohio Street. Her giggly daughter had blond curls and chipmunk cheeks and, usually, a quick smile. The notion that she was listless and exhausted, with more than just a dreamy spring fever, didn’t sound right. Barbara made an appointment with the children’s doctor, who examined Robin and drew some blood. Dr. Dorothy Wyvell, the pediatrician just about every family in Midland trusted, immediately spotted signs of something serious, but she didn’t put a name to it, not until she was sure. When the test results came back, she would call her, she told Barbara. She suggested that the parents return together that afternoon to talk, without Robin. That sounded ominous, Barbara thought, but she couldn’t imagine that something was seriously amiss.
George Bush, then twenty-eight years old, was checking land records at the Ector County courthouse, twenty miles from Midland, when Barbara called him. Dr. Wyvell wanted to see them right away. In late afternoon, as daylight ebbed, they sat down in her small office. George Bush could tell something was wrong. The pediatrician, a family friend, had been a composed and reassuring figure in dealing with the standard childhood scrapes and ailments. This time, she was struggling to find words, and her eyes were misting with tears.
The doctor finally spoke. The test results were back. Robin had leukemia.
Neither parent had ever heard of it. What was it? How do we cure her? What can we do? Nothing, Dr. Wyvell told them. Robin’s white blood cell count was the highest she had ever seen, a sign that the disease was rampant. Robin might have a few weeks to live, or even just a few days. They could choose to treat her, though the research into leukemia was very preliminary. There was no cure. The doctor’s advice was to let nature take its course. Tell no one about their daughter’s terrifying diagnosis. Take her home. Make her comfortable. Let her slip away.
They were stunned, but they were hardly ready to accept that advice. They already had demonstrated they were more comfortable taking action than sitting still. He had enlisted at age eighteen to fight in World War II; at age twenty-two, she had left the comforts of upper-crust society in Connecticut to set up a string of households in the Oil Patch. They weren’t ready to give up on their daughter without a fight. They had moved to Texas in a sort of declaration of independence, but now they were grateful for their family connections back east. Bush called his uncle, Dr. John Walker, a renowned surgeon at Memorial Hospital in New York.
Walker urged them to bring Robin to New York, where doctors had just begun some of the early research into leukemia. Perhaps nothing could be done, he said, but they would never forgive themselves if they didn’t try. “You don’t have a choice,” he told them. Even if the odds were a hundred million to one, “you’ve got to give life a chance.”
They left Dr. Wyvell’s office with the news still sinking in. They had driven there in separate cars. Barbara headed home; Bush told her he needed to stop by his office for a moment. In fact, he dropped by the house of some friends, the Fowlers, and asked Liz Fowler to come over to be with Barbara. More friends gathered at the house as the news spread through the neighborhood.
Decades later, Barbara Bush would remember every bit of it, with the crystalline recall that comes with the unfolding of catastrophic events. When their teetotaling minister and his wife arrived, George Bush offered them a drink—though they “would no more take a drink than fly,” Barbara said. The Reverend Dr. Matthew Lynn demurred. “Not now, George,” he said. The “now” deflected any sense of discomfort, as though perhaps another time the pastor might well accept. “Such a silly, small thing to remember,” Barbara would say later, and yet she did remember.
Hurriedly, frantically, plans were made. Little George would stay with one friend; baby Jeb would stay with another. The next morning, George and Barbara Bush were on a plane to New York with their daughter. Not even twenty-four hours had passed since they had received the most devastating news of their lives.
Robin’s illness and her death six brutal months later would forever change Barbara Bush. The experience would steel her resolve and broaden her understanding of the ways the innocent can be caught and crushed by the unfairness of life. It would leave an indelible stamp on her about what matters, and what doesn’t. It would cement a bond between her and her firstborn son that would last until Barbara’s passing. And it would test her marriage. George’s and Barbara’s responses to Robin’s illness and eventual death would forge a template that they would follow through the ebbs and flows of their long union.
Barbara was the strong one during Robin’s painful treatment as George dissolved in tears. With Robin’s death, Barbara was the one who collapsed into sorrow, and George became her rock. The pattern of one stepping up when the other was struggling—and of being able to switch those roles between them—would sustain the couple during times of political defeat and personal pain. It would prove to be crucial decades later when Barbara Bush struggled with depression and again when the elder George Bush was embittered by his defeat for reelection to the White House.
But nothing would ever match the heartbreaking struggle that robbed them of any sense of the seasons in 1953.
The morning after Robin died, on October 11, 1953, Barbara was shocked when she suddenly noticed that the leaves on the trees in her hometown of Rye, in suburban New York, were at the peak of their fall colors. The last time she had paid any attention to such things was six months earlier, in Midland, on that March day. “I remember realizing life went on,” she said, “whether we were looking or not.”
When Robin was diagnosed with leukemia, no medical journal had recorded even a single case of a patient being cured of the disease, nor of anyone surviving for more than a few months after being diagnosed. But the first breakthroughs were being made.
For more than a century, childhood leukemia had perplexed and frustrated doctors. The disease was like “a wax-museum doll,” Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote in the opening chapter of his epic 2010 tome, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. The disease had been studied in detail but without achieving any therapeutic advances. Patients were “diagnosed, transfused—and sent home to die,” a medical magazine noted. Indeed, that was close to the advice Dr. Wyvell had given the Bushes.
In 1948, researcher Sidney Farber at Children’s Hospital in Boston managed to push leukemia into remission by using an early form of chemotherapy—a dramatic breakthrough and a welcome one, but only a temporary respite. Within a few months, the patients invariably would suffer a relapse and die. In the early 1950s, two scientists at Sloan Kettering began clinical trials on a similar approach, using a different drug. They succeeded in bringing about a remission after only a few days of treatment, but the remission was limited to weeks.
- On Sale
- Apr 2, 2019
- Page Count
- 592 pages