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1AN AMERICAN ICONOn a day of mourning, September 14, 2001, three days after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City, Barbara Bush was among those paying their respects at the National Cathedral in Washington. Cameras caught her looking on proudly as her husband, the forty first president of the United States, reached out to comfort their son, the forty-third.Because of these two men and her relationship to them Barbara Bush is assured of a prominent place in history. Her four years as first lady were not especially notable, but her dual role as both mother and wife of a president is.The only other first lady to achieve this status in America was Abigail Adams almost two centuries earlier. And as Barbara noted somewhat dryly during the 2000 Republican presidential convention, where her firstborn won nomination, there is a key difference: “I don’t think she was living,” she said. “I plan to be living.”1Abigail Adams was the wife of John Adams, the second president, and mother of John Quincy Adams, the sixth. She died at age seventy-four, seven years before her son became president. Barbara Bush was seventy-five when George W. Bush moved into the White House and was able, when he took the oath of office, to brush his cheek with a kiss, and murmur, “I am so proud of you.”These two first ladies nevertheless have much in common. Both were married at age nineteen to upper-class men of uncommon abilities and ambitions. Each spent most of her early marriage at home caring for children and both lost a child to illness.Like John Adams, George Bush was a diplomat, congressman, and twoterm vice president before winning the White House, and both men were defeated when they tried for a second term. Each suffered in the shadow of an extremely popular president—George Washington and Ronald Reagan. Adams wrote to Abigail that at his inaugural, the outgoing president still seemed triumphant, and “Methought I heard him say, ‘Aye. I am fairly out, and you fairly in. See which one of us will be happiest.’”Similarly, George Bush was so accustomed to living in Reagan’s shadow that he had to be reminded—by Barbara—to respond at his inauguration when “the president” was called to speak.John Adams lost in his bid for a second presidential term. The victor was Thomas Jefferson, a man whom Abigail Adams disliked so intensely she could hardly be civil to him. Barbara had similar feelings about Bill Clinton.Barbara’s son became president without winning the popular vote and he locked up the electoral vote only after interference by the U.S. Supreme Court. Abigail Adams’s son won the presidency over Andrew Jackson without the popular vote or the needed number in the electoral college and only after interference by the U.S. House of Representatives.Still, the Adams family legacy is outstanding in American history. John Adams was a key figure in the American Revolution. John Quincy Adams was considered intellectually ahead of his time and was the only president to serve in Congress after his term in the White House. In the House of Representatives he was known as Old Man Eloquent.The Bush family legacy is still in the making, with George W. in the White House, his younger brother Jeb serving as governor of Florida, and Jeb’s charismatic young son George P. just barely offstage. Dynasty is an idea that the family shies from, at least in public. “I don’t like dynasty and legacy and all that stuff,” George Bush told reporters. “The history part of it does not affect me. Nobody believes that, but it doesn’t.”Ditto George W. Bush. The day his father was inaugurated in 1989, The Washington Post asked if he and other members of the family were feeling a sense of history. “History?” he said. “I don’t think so. I didn’t feel it.”2Barbara Bush, whose ancestors include another president—Franklin Pierce—says she has no interest in dynasty building either. But her attitudes tell another story. She grew up at a time and place—Westchester County, New York, in the 1940s—where class and good breeding often led to success and a degree of prominence in society. She had every reason to think that she would have a place in this tradition, and a fortuitous marriage put her into the history books.It’s too soon to tell how history will judge her performance during her four years as first lady. She may suffer by comparison to both her immediate predecessor and her successor, each of whom had eight years on center stage at the White House and both of whom were compelling and controversial figures on their own.Nancy Reagan was an actress who brought a lot of Hollywood glamour along with her to Washington. While she had many critics, the nation was fascinated with her clothes, her spending, her friends, her personality, and her husband, Mrs. Reagan ranks at the bottom of current-day polls among historians, who judge first ladies on their effectiveness, primarily because she broke one of the golden rules of first ladydom—don’t cause controversies that reflect badly on the White House. But some historians now say that Mrs. Reagan will rise in the polls since it is becoming clear she had a major influence on her husband’s decisions on nuclear disarmament.Hillary Clinton set a new standard for presidential wives. Better educated than any previous first lady—and most presidents—she held a law degree from Yale and already had substantial experience in politics when she married Bill Clinton. Her desire to take part in decision making along with the president challenged tradition and led to a lot of criticism. But she left the White House on a triumphant note, winning a place for herself in the United States Senate while she was still first lady. Even though she caused trouble for the president, historians admire her because she was so actively involved in policy.Barbara was more popular with the American public than either Nancy Reagan or Hillary Clinton. That was in large part because she carefully avoided controversy, taking few public positions on the issues of her time while she was in the White House. Her witty manner, white hair, and rounded figure made her seem more approachable than any other recent first lady. Women could imagine having a cup of coffee with Barbara Bush or living next door to her in a comfortable suburban community. Not so Nancy Reagan or Hillary Clinton.This performance was all the more remarkable because, while Barbara Bush is warm and funny, she also is frosty, imperious, and snobbish, and she carries a grudge. She has said somewhat archly that while she could sit down and have coffee with just about anyone, she is comfortable dining with the Queen of England as well. She will freeze out anyone who does damage to her husband or sons. She remembers who offered early support and who didn’t. She has a streak of bitterness that came rampaging to the fore during the unsuccessful 1992 campaign.“I actually think that Barbara Bush pulled off a bit of a feat because my sense is that her personality is a lot less warm and cuddly and grandmotherly than her image,” said presidential historian Gil Troy, a professor of American history at McGill University in Montreal and author of Mr. and Mrs. President. “The image that she transmitted to the American people was exactly what the American people wanted, especially after Nancy Reagan. Especially after the glitzy eighties and the decadent seventies and the rebellious sixties, they wanted a kind of a reassuring, upbeat traditional presence in the White House and Barbara Bush gave them that.“And the fact that there’s a gap between who she appeared to be and who she was is almost more of a compliment to her skills than what she did. She helped the American people look to the White House as a source of stability, as a bastion of tradition … and I think that was quite an accomplishment.”Troy thinks, however, that history will not rank Barbara Bush as high as the public does today because historians “often look for a kind of activist agenda,” which Mrs. Bush did not have.Eleanor Roosevelt, a partner with FDR in much that he did, is almost always at the top of first-lady lists, ranking first or second in the Gallup poll of Most Admired Women every year from 1948 to 1961, and also topping surveys among historians. She was an upper-class activist who befriended the poor and brought working-class women home for dinner. Some of them, her mother-in-law noted acidly, drank from the finger bowls.Barbara Bush was sometimes measured against Eleanor Roosevelt but objected to comparisons because she grew up in a Republican household where the outspoken Eleanor was much disliked. During the 1992 campaign, Barbara was asked where she would put herself between Bess Truman on one side and Eleanor Roosevelt on the other. “I always thought Bess Truman was terrific,” she said. “I got ridiculed for that once, but she was a great wife. So was Eleanor Roosevelt … . I think I’m half Eleanor, half Bess. I think I go out and do a lot of things. I do lots of traveling and a lot of programs … . I really stay out of government business if I possibly can.”3In reality, though, Barbara was not much like either Bess Truman, who withdrew from Washington and left Harry in the White House alone during the darkest days of World War II, or Eleanor Roosevelt, who spoke comfortingly to the public before Franklin did after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Against the Roosevelt model, Barbara Bush’s accomplishments pale, in the view of most historians.“I don’t think she left a legacy of leadership in her own right,” said Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “She will be remembered as someone who had a certain kind of wit, a sense of humor, was nobody’s fool, would let her feelings be known in a way that people found witty or sometimes endearing. So I think she’ll be known more as a personality than as a leader … Barbara Bush did not use the role to do anything new.”Troy agrees with that assessment but thinks that many historians and the media have the wrong ideas about what a first lady should be.“A first lady like Barbara Bush who was universally beloved by the American people, who did not embarrass her husband, who reached out not only to proper white-gloved, blue-haired Republican ladies but also in her famous Wellesley speech, to a new generation—someone like that is going to get less high marks and less kudos because it’s the ‘wrong model,’” Troy said. “But sometimes I think that academics are focused on the wrong model and not on looking at what the American people say they want.”Robert Watson, presidential scholar and author of The Presidents’ Wives, thinks Barbara will be ranked among the top ten on first-lady lists far into the future, primarily because she was so popular. His own poll of presidential and first-lady scholars, taken in 1996 and 1997, put Barbara nineteenth on a list of thirty-nine first ladies. A poll by Siena College of New York, taken in 1993, ranked Barbara eighth.“I think she’ll be remembered for these wonderful quips, so straight-talking, so witty and so straightforward,” Watson said. “In a day and age when politicians and their spouses are holding their fingers to the wind of public opinion, Barbara Bush was a breath of fresh air. She was straight-talking, she was herself, she was comfortable in her own skin.”Historians differ on whether Barbara will be pulled down in the historical rankings by her husband, a one-term president whose time in office was notable for little more than the Gulf War.“In some ways, the reputation of the first lady tracks the reputation of the president,” says Lewis Gould, retired history professor at the University of Texas and editor of American First Ladies.“I think being wedged between Reagan and Clinton it’s a high probability that this is going to be one of those administrations that will be seen as a transitional one, which is the kiss of death. That will probably mean that Barbara Bush will not be seen [to be] as interesting as she might have been. In fact it may be that her real historical significance will be seen as more the mother of George W. Bush than as the wife.”Mandel noted that sometimes a legacy depends on “the moment in history” when a first lady is in the spotlight. Laura Bush, for example, came into office determined to stay in the background and that’s what she did for the first six months in the White House. But after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, she became far more active and took on the role of national comforter. “The times have created a situation in which she has begun to play a role that could very well end up making her a very important first lady, who found a way to be a voice of influence and even leadership that we don’t know yet,” Mandel said. “It’s been fascinating to see her emerge and develop a public persona that was contrary to the expectations that she herself had set up for the public.”Both Barbara and George Bush have carefully avoided detracting attention from George W. and Laura since he won election. While father and son talk often by phone, the advice is always private. Whatever Barbara may say to her son and daughter-in-law is also behind closed doors. And Laura has developed a style in office distinctly different from Barbara’s. “One senses between Laura and Barbara Bush, these two very strong personalities have learned how to deal with each other and how to create zones of their own competence,” Troy say. “One senses Barbara Bush’s presence as a matriarch but also one doesn’t really sense her presence in the White House.”Laura had a shorter and easier path to the White House than Barbara, going through just one losing campaign and spending two terms as the first lady of Texas. She married George W. Bush after he was already well established.The path to the White House for Barbara started when she was nineteen and in love with a handsome and very ambitious young man who took her from the comforts of suburban New York City to the flat, unattractive plains of Texas and often left her at home alone for days at a time with a house full of young children while he was out in the oil fields seeking his fortune. But there were many young families in a similar situation and they fell into an informal camaraderie that Barbara still recalls fondly.When the oil business improved, the Bushes moved to Houston and their political life began. First, George won at the county level and later became a congressman, which entailed a move to Washington. Barbara made a lot of friends in the capital but also suffered a serious six-month depression while George was head of the CIA.“I think when you go back to her breakdown, her crisis moment, I think that comes from her feeling neglected by her husband or by his career,” historian Gil Troy says. “I think some of the things she talks about in her memoirs, the peppery little stories she would often tell about George Bush and his career, it was very clear that she was in the role of the caretaker. That put her subordinate to George Bush and there were definitely frustrations there.”An unsuccessful run for the presidency in 1980 nevertheless left George and Barbara with a win of sorts—he became vice president, a job he held for eight years. Barbara was in the shadows during that time, not unhappily but definitely kept out of the limelight most of the time by Nancy Reagan. When Nancy drew up a guest list for a dinner honoring Prince Charles and Princess Diana, George and Barbara Bush were not among those invited. An aide protested, saying that would be a breach of protocol. “Just watch me,” Nancy replied.4By the time she got to the White House, Barbara was ready for the spotlight, and somewhat surprised by how much she enjoyed it. “Part of the fun of the White House was that she came into her own,” Troy said. “You take the eight years when Bush was vice president and she was not only playing second fiddle to George Bush’s career but also watching her and her husband get often shunted aside and then quite dramatically dissed by Nancy Reagan. I think those four years in the sun where she really came into her own were quite wonderful and quite empowering for her.”Once she got to the White House, Barbara became a symbol for the millions of women who put home and family first, whether or not they held jobs in the paid workforce. Her easy relationship with her five children and fourteen grandchildren delighted a nation that had become accustomed over eight years to the sad alienation between Ronald and Nancy Reagan and their children.Despite an upper-middle-class childhood, Barbara managed to convey a down-to-earth image, much in contrast to the Beverly Hills style that Nancy Reagan cultivated. After the Bushes had been in the White House a little more than a year, the Ikea furniture store, makers of inexpensive do-it-yourself Scandinavian styles, ran an advertisement on the sides of buses in Washington: “Nancy Reagan style at Barbara Bush prices.”Despite her grandmotherly image—“I always say she was Mrs. Santa Claus. She even looked like her,” says historian Robert Watson—Barbara has her hair styled regularly and wears designer clothes. But when she was in the White House, she didn’t dwell on fashion. She said early on that she was a size 14, had a tendency to gain weight, and wore fake pearls to cover up the wrinkles in her neck. She said she had no plans to dye her white hair or to get a facelift. “I’m so old now that I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not,” she said shortly after becoming first lady when she was sixty-four years old.During inauguration week, the Kennedy Center held a salute to her and she appeared on stage looking great—hair nicely styled, perfect makeup, and wearing a blouse that matched the jacket lining of her periwinkle suit. She turned around slowly, model style, and told the audience, “Please notice: hairdo, makeup, designer dress. Look at me good this week because it’s the only week of my life you’re ever going to see it.”When she was invited to speak at the Alfred E. Smith fund-raising dinner in New York that year, she used the occasion to poke fun at herself. “It’s not easy being the wife of the president,” she said. “Last Sunday a reader of Parade magazine wrote in with one of those burning questions … . She wrote, ‘I would like to know how much Barbara Bush weighs,’ and they answered it. Parade magazine says I weigh between one hundred and thirty-five and one hundred and forty pounds. George said, ‘The press never gets anything right.’ Just for starters, I was born weighing one hundred and thirty-five pounds.”Half the women in America identified with this kind of humorous selfput-down—“My mail tells me a lot of fat, white-haired, wrinkled ladies are tickled pink”—and Barbara’s looks and wardrobe ceased to be a primary topic of conversation.Like many people, Barbara grew in the White House. She became more skilled in public speaking, in deflecting questions she didn’t want to answer, and in using her high profile to showcase people and causes she cared about.During the Persian Gulf War when the threat of terrorists kept many Americans from flying, she took a commercial jet to visit military families in Indianapolis. She said she wanted to show people that the skies were safe. Public officials did the same thing in 2001 after the air attack on the World Trade Center.Shortly after Barbara became first lady, she visited Grandma’s House, a home for abandoned babies with AIDS. When she picked up one of the infants and cuddled it, the picture ran in newspapers across the country. The message was clear. It’s okay to get close to someone with AIDS; the disease isn’t easily spread. The effect on Grandma’s House was overwhelming. Money and volunteers came pouring in. A later visit to a hospital in Harlem got similar results.When Washington malls decided to end a long-standing tradition and ban the Salvation Army bell ringers at Christmas, Barbara made a point of going to a mall and dropping in money, telling the startled bell ringer, “I’m a great fan of the Salvation Army.” Some malls relented after that, allowing the bell ringers back in.Her best-known work has been on behalf of literacy, a subject she was drawn to because one of her four sons, Neil, has dyslexia, a disorder that makes reading difficult. “Both George and I were brought up to feel that we were very lucky and we ought to give back to society,” she said. “And knowing that George was going to run for national office, I spent a whole summer thinking about what would help the most people possible. And it suddenly occurred to me that every single thing I worry about—things like teenage pregnancies, the breakup of families, drugs, AIDS, the homeless—everything would be better if people could read, write, and understand.”Barbara also did a lot of volunteer work during the eight years George Bush was vice president, and she sought out people whose work she admired, and told them so. In the fall of 1988, shortly before the presidential election, she telephoned Calvin Woodland, who worked with troubled youths in Washington. She had read about his work in the newspaper and invited him to lunch to discuss it. Woodland was surprised to learn that he was one of only two guests at the lunch, the other being George Kettle, active in an organization that provided scholarships to needy students.“The things we talked about weren’t some questions she thought she should ask me because I was a black person,” Woodland said. “She had read about the things I had been doing with kids and youth in the community. She told me not to give up, that people do know what is going on and they care about people like me.”5Despite all her years in the public eye and the cutting wit she often directs at others, Barbara herself is thin-skinned and can’t stand it when criticism is directed at her husband or sons. During campaigns, she often stops reading newspapers and watching television because they make her too angry. When George Bush lost to Clinton in 1992, she lashed out at the press, at people in the White House who gave anonymous quotes—“those cheapskates”—and at longtime Bush aide James Baker, blaming him in part for the campaign loss.She also became more political that year in an effort to salvage a failing campaign, a posture that cast her in a less positive light.“I think she didn’t really put a foot wrong in terms of flaps or controversy almost until the Republican convention of 1992,” said historian Lewis Gould. “She began to be seen as more of a partisan and I think that took some of the edge off of the grandmotherly reputation she had so carefully cultivated. But before it could do real damage to her reputation, the presidency was over.“If he had pulled it out, I think it would have been a much more difficult period for her because she wouldn’t have been simply the grandmotherly successor of Nancy Reagan but would have faced questions from the press about, ‘Is literacy all there is,’ that kind of thing. She didn’t want her husband to lose, but for her reputation, she kind of escaped unscathed.”Troy thinks the fact that Barbara remained popular even during the 1992 recession and “the terrible campaign,” is a tribute to her skills. “The fact that years later she remains very popular is a real tribute to her emergence into the sunlight after also many years of being upstaged and pushed aside by her husband, or feeling pushed aside by her husband,” he said.Barbara could have taken some satisfaction at that point in the knowledge that she was helping the campaign with her popularity, and indeed was more popular by far than the president. “The public doesn’t vote for a first lady but the first lady can help prop up a president’s popularity. It can help firm up support and I think that was the case with Barbara,” historian Watson says. “What goodwill he had in the end, a lot of it came from Barbara. Barbara was more popular than him.”Barbara said over and over during the campaign that it wasn’t fair to compare her popularity with the president’s because he had to make all the hard decisions, which gained him enemies. Years later, when she analyzed the election, she said one reason Bush lost was that the press told Americans the economy was bad “when it really wasn’t.” Also, Bush was at a disadvantage generationally with Clinton, she said, and the world had changed: since communism was no longer a big threat, Bush’s greatest strength—foreign policy—became less valuable.6Barbara also touts her own success but in an indirect way. When her memoirs were published in 1994 she was asked how she saw herself compared with the more activist Hillary Clinton. “I think you don’t get the report card … until the four years are over and I’d be interested to know who accomplishes the most,” she said. “I feel very good about the Literacy Act of 1991, which was my major interest and the different things … having to do with education, which I don’t take credit for but I worked hard on.”She said she sees the role of first lady much as Lady Bird Johnson did and quoted from Johnson’s memoirs: “If your project is useful and people notice it and that reflects well on your husband … heavens, that’s one of your biggest roles in life.”7Such a role, says historian Troy, is just what most Americans want from their first lady.“I look at the role of the first lady as part of a joint image-making project with the president in the modern world,” he says. “What Americans want to see is the wife of the president involved in tone setting, in setting an example involved in reassuring the nation when necessary and more broadly kind of helping to set a kind of vision … . That’s not necessarily my reading of what the ideal role of what the first lady should be, but my sense of what the American people have said to public opinion polls.“They want the first lady there as a kind of reinforcer of the president’s image and message but not someone going off the reservation and marching to the beat of her own drum.”Barbara Bush never did wander off the reservation. She was taught from an early age to play a proper role and neither the revolutionary changes in the 1960s nor her years in the public spotlight have changed that. She still takes great pride in being George Bush’s wife and the mother of five children.On the other hand, she herself has become an American icon, one of the most popular first ladies of the twentieth century, and she is the force behind a growing political dynasty. This is her story.BARBARA BUSH: MATRIARCH OF A DYNASTY. Copyright © 2002 by Pamela Kilian. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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