Though Barbara Pierce Bush was the wife and the mother of American presidents, she was often underestimated; her contributions almost never acknowledged or recognized. But a new book goes a long way toward changing that.
In “The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty,” USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page details Bush’s critical role in the end of the Cold War, her work to advance literacy and her position as a sharp and trusted political strategist. That makes one revelation – that Barbara Bush left the GOP in the final years of her life – all the more stunning. She did so, in part, because of her anger over Donald Trump becoming the party’s standard-bearer. But her relationship with politics, with Texas, and with the issues of her times was more complicated than many could have imagined.
As Page conducted interviews for her book, including conversations with members of the Bush family, she asked one thought-provoking question: could either president Bush have achieved his office without Barbara Bush? Page says both men said they could have done it. But Page disagrees, especially where Barbara’s husband, George H.W. Bush was concerned.
“I think this was an indispensable partnership between two people so well-matched, and that they each completed the other,” Page says.
When George Bush first ran for president in 1980, Page says campaign officials weren’t sure Barbara Bush would be an asset “because they worried that her hair was white, and she needed to lose a few pounds, they worried that voters would think she was his mother, not his wife.”
That assessment hurt Barbara Bush, Page says.
“One thing that George Bush knew… was that you weren’t going to change Barbara Bush,” Page says. “Barbara Bush was just who she was.”
By 1992, when then-President Bush was seeking reelection, Barbara Bush was crucial to his efforts, and more popular than her husband.
In the early years of their marriage, the Bushes three-year-old daughter, Robin, contracted leukemia and died. Page says their daughter’s loss had a profound effect on Barbara Bush.
“The defining experience, for Barbara Bush, I believe, was the illness and death of Robin,” Page says. She says neither of the Bushes had ever heard of leukemia.
Robin’s loss toughened Barbara Bush, and also made her more empathetic, eventually affecting her views on AIDS and abortion, Page says.
As her death approached, Bush told a nephew that this time of life was “joyous” because she would soon be reunited with Robin.
Page is on tour with the book, appearing in several Texas cities, this week.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.