Barbara Bush, 1925-2018

Remembering the Silver Fox

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Editor's Note: Matthew Walther wrote this piece in 2015 in honor of Barbara Bush's 90th birthday. The Washington Free Beacon is reposting now to remember the former first lady.

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In the preface to the first volume of her amusing and compulsively readable memoirs, Barbara Pierce Bush writes of a bargain struck with her editors at Scribners under the terms of which she was allowed "to use one ‘wonderful’ a page and one ‘precious’ a chapter." We learn more about her relationship with her editors in a diary entry reproduced in volume two:

Lisa [Drew, who worked on both books] hates exclamation points. She is not crazy about the words "dearest," as in "dearest friends"; "greatest," as in "greatest children" or grandchildren; "best," as in "best friend." Lisa actually has become a great friend and if she behaves, she will be in danger of becoming a great dearest best friend.

Thank goodness Lisa did not win the day! Almost unique among the work of contemporary political memoirists, Mrs. Bush’s prose is her own. It owes its success to the chiaroscuro of incessant praise ("beautiful, fascinating children," "perfect hotels," "charming, soft-spoken people") and prickliness that allows her to write of a group of nuns she meets on a post-White House trip to Nicaragua:

The darling sisters smelled like billy goats. I guess bathing was not easy.

While blocking up the flow of pluck and good manners would give readers a false sense of her character, there is more to Mrs. Bush than dogs, pearls, milk toast, seaside luncheons, and being "dear" friends with retired bishops, wonderful as all these things are. In the popular imagination, the 43rd First Lady of the United States is either a smiling white-haired grandmother who knits, reads lowbrow mystery novels, and lavishes attention on her pets; or a kind of Emily Gilmore figure, snobbish, conniving, nasty towards the help, and, probably, sozzled half the time.

As it happens, Mrs. Bush prefers needlepoint to knitting, and although she is a great fan of Mary Higgins Clark, who once, over tea, encouraged her to try her hand at fiction ("She said that it was really easy"), she is also an admirer of P.D. James, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Elizabeth Jane Howard. The White House staff remembers her with great affection, something that cannot be said of the press corps, of whom she has spoken with occasional and, needless to say, well-earned disdain.

Born in 1925, she grew up in Rye, New York, from which her father, Marvin, a magazine publisher, commuted to the city daily by train—riding, his daughter tells us "in the Club Car, where the men had a drink and played bridge." Her carefree early life revolved around the Encyclopedia Britannica, radio dramas, cycling and other sports, and old-fashioned nursery food ("On Sunday night, we would have graham crackers and cream. What a glorious dish that was"). Early in the first volume of memoirs she tells us how one day she was spotted by several neighbors "walking down the street covered with Marshmallow Fluff, eating right from the can." Phone calls were made. "Mother did not think it was quite so cute. To add insult to injury, I was violently ill. I haven’t eaten it since."

The Pierces were well off, especially by the standards of the Depression, but far from rich. Barbara’s mother, Pauline, a great beauty who held the conservation chair of the Garden Club of America, spent twice her annual allowance for frivolities and kept a drawer full of unpaid bills that Marvin did his best to settle twice a year. The now unfashionable WASP ethos of which Mrs. Bush—with her ceaseless charity work, her abhorrence of racism and bad manners, and her dogged Episcopalianism—is one of our last and most charming exponents was never a mere question of upbringing, much less one of money. The preppies who, the story goes, once served the State Department honorably and managed Wall Street with a perfunctory competence untempted by the sinister magic of credit default swaps did so with a practiced self-effacement for which wealth and Ivy League education are neither sufficient nor necessary.

This dignified attitude has been apparent throughout her life. Mrs. Bush takes no credit for her good behavior as a boarding student at Ashley Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, where she tells us she was a "true square, making good marks and never breaking rules. … Drugs, sex, and violence were not constantly thrust at us by television." Many years later, in published extracts from her diary, we find her teasing herself about her weight:

I rode my bike this morning, looked at catalogs, and decided that the most insulting, worst thing is for a large woman to see a dress she loves and it will say: "Extra Large—size 14." Now that is heart rending. Not only do they not carry my size, but they insult me along the way!

Glossing a line in an undated entry that reads simply "Life threatened," she writes, "I don’t remember this now but it must have been a threat against George and not a nice fat old lady." After meeting with a group of home schooling mothers, she tells us that they "must be saints. … I would never have the patience." She is perplexed to find herself making the rounds with other former world leaders on the nascent international paid speaking circuit after years of stumping for her husband gratis: "Many of us agreed that speaking qualified as ‘white collar crime.’ … [I]t seemed like stealing to be paid half a year’s salary for one speech." Even in her seventies, she is chiding herself for enjoying baked peaches ("I really like this dish, and, of course, it is bad for you") and apologizing for her poor spelling.

At a dance held over Christmas vacation in 1941, she met "the nicest, cutest boy," a senior at Phillips Academy Andover. This was George "Poppy" Bush, the scion of the relatively new Bush industrial—not yet political—dynasty that had begun two generations earlier with Samuel P. Bush, himself the son of an Episcopal clergyman. They exchanged letters—all of them, unfortunately, lost—throughout the winter, and she went up for his senior prom, staying with a friend of her sister, Martha.

[A]fter the dance, Pop walked me home and, in front of the world, leaned down and kissed me on the cheek. I floated into my room and kept the poor girl I was rooming with awake all night while I made her listen to how Poppy Bush was the great living human on the face of the earth.

A few weeks later, on his 18th birthday, George enlisted in the Navy, in which he was to have a distinguished career as the youngest aviator in the service’s history, flying some 58 bombing missions while Barbara fretfully neglected her studies at Smith College. Upon his return, she dropped out of Smith, and they were married two weeks later in January 1945.

Not everything in her books is cheerful. In 1953 the Bushes lost their second child, Pauline, whom they called "Robin," to leukemia. The family’s pediatrician advised the family to "tell no one, go home forget that Robin was sick, make her as comfortable as possible as [they] could, love her—and let her gently slip away." They managed to get Robin, who was four years old, into Sloan-Kettering, after working hard to convince the doctors there that the diagnosis was accurate; she died that year in October, with both of her parents at her bedside. Many readers will find themselves unprepared for Mrs. Bush’s terse but very frank account of her depression that comes about a quarter of the way through her first memoir:

It is still not easy to talk about today, and I certainly didn’t talk about it then. I felt ashamed. I had a husband whom I adored, the world’s greatest children, more friends than I could see—and I was severely depressed. I hid it from everyone, including my closest friends. Everyone but George Bush. He would suggest that I get professional help, and that sent me into deeper gloom. He was working such incredibly long hours at his job, and I swore to myself I would not burden him. Then he would come home, and I would tell him all about it. Night after night George held me weeping in his arms while I tried to explain my feelings. I almost wonder why he didn’t leave me. Sometimes the pain was so great, I felt the urge to drive into a tree or an oncoming car. When that happened, I would pull over to the side of the road until I felt okay. …

My "code" told me that you should not think about self, but others. And yet, there I was, wallowing in self-pity. I knew it was wrong, but couldn’t seem to pull out of it. I wish I could pinpoint the day it went away, but I can’t. All I know is that after about six months, it just did. I was so lucky.

More surprising still is this break with WASP mores:

I used to think that you could control your emotions, that you just needed to think of others and not yourself. I still think that is one of the secrets to happiness, but I also realize you cannot handle everything alone. And when things go out of control, you should seek help. Certainly if I could do it over again, I would.

A few years after this spell, she and George made their first foray into presidential politics. From a reader’s perspective, George’s vice presidency and presidency are of interest not least because they allow Mrs. Bush the observer to widen her scope as she travels the world ("Have you ever noticed how many Koreans are named Kim? Lots"). She finds Downing Street under Norma Major’s stewardship "warm, attractive, and cozy." She is baffled by Nicaraguan politics: "For starters, there were twenty-seven different political parties. How could they get anything done?"

Her verdicts on world leaders and other persons of note are amusing and judicious. Nixon was a cold fish, but Pat was "gentle" and both daughters "wonderful." Perhaps too many people are "nice": not only the former Japanese prime minister Toshiki Kaifu, for example, but also Hosni Murbarak, Sidney Poitier, and Richard Gere. She does not apologize for saying that in 1992 the candidate who was "by far the better man" lost, but otherwise, at George’s insistence, she is reticent about the Clintons.

Some of the most amusing material is post presidential. Here we see her doing charity work, visiting her grandchildren, and following her sons’ political careers keenly if somewhat anxiously ("This is a very nervous time for all Bushes"). Occasionally someone encourages her to see a film: "I hated [L.A. Confidential]. It was all about ‘bad cops.’ I think ‘cops’ are good, and I hate for children to see them denigrated." She has no sympathy for Michael Fray, the American sentenced to caning in Singapore in 1994:

Because this is my memoir, I feel free to speak for myself. Every foreigner who goes to Singapore is clearly and firmly warned about breaking the law and told just how harsh the punishment will be. Anyone involved in this spree deserved to be punished, severely in my opinion. They have very strict rules in Singapore, such as no chewing gum, litter, etc. It is the world’s cleanest, safest city, and they have a right to make their own laws.

After the Oklahoma City bombing, she dismisses the National Rifle Association as "offensive" and "paranoiac" and is happy when George withdraws his lifetime membership. She continues with her causes—among recent ones, the rate of Braille literacy—and by the beginning of the last decade, she is heaping scorn on the internet, "where a lot of people get their information… Anyone can start their own website and many have." The second volume ends on Christmas Eve in 2002, with her and George attending a traditional festival of lessons and carols at Camp David feeling "blessed to be surrounded by love and caring."

These books begin and end with expressions of gratitude. Reflecting on Lisa Drew’s strictures concerning her favorite adjectives in the preface to volume one, Mrs. Bush writes:

Not bad to have had a life that was filled with wonderful people and happenings, precious family, and many close friends. That’s the life that first my family, and then for much longer, that wonderful, precious, close friend George Bush, have given me and I’m grateful for it.

So are we!

Matthew Walther   Email Matthew | Full Bio | RSS
Matthew Walther is associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon. He was previously assistant editor of the American Spectator. His work has also appeared in the Spectator of London, First Things, the Weekly Standard, National Review, the Daily Beast, and other publications. He lives with his wife, Lydia, in Alexandria, Virginia. His Twitter handle is @matthewwalther.

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