- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2008

It’s not easy to write an interesting biography of Barbara Bush when your main sources of information are her speeches and the staff who wrote them. Myra G. Gutin, professor of communication at Rider University, may well have thought she’d have access to her subject’s personal papers at the George Bush Library, scheduled to be opened to researchers in 2005, but, as she notes in the bibliography of her new book, President George W. Bush has closed those records for the indefinite future. Moreover, letters between wife and husband during World War II are said to have been lost in one of the family’s numerous moves, and Barbara Bush’s diaries are closed to researchers until 35 years after her death.

Hence, Barbara Bush: Presidential Matriarch (University Press of Kansas, $29.95, 208 pages, illus.) is based largely on Mrs. Bush’s memoirs and those speeches, which are milked for all they are worth, particularly the one at Wellesley College, where the students had sought to rescind Mrs. Bush’s invitation to speak because she had never been in the work force. In the Wellesley engagement as in many others, Mrs. Bush took a self-deprecatory approach - and had the wit to invite Raisa Gorbachev to share the platform and deflect some of the ruckus. But it’s hard to build a gripping story around ghostwritten speeches.

“Barbara Bush” is the ninth in a series called “Modern First Ladies,” edited by Lewis L. Gould, and it covers well-trod territory in a workmanlike fashion: How quickly the political wife learned to keep her mouth shut on all controversial issues (she got burned on abortion and gun control), how hard she worked to advance her husband’s career while caring for five children and how devastated the couple was by the death of three-year-old Robin. What the book does not do is provide any insights into the subtitle’s promise of Barbara Bush as presidential matriarch, other than to say that a special relationship between mother and eldest son George dates from Robin’s death.

The author notes how the senior Bushes were “pleased and relieved” when George W. married Laura, whom they viewed as a steadying influence and one who would forestall any rumors about the 31-year-old George’s masculinity as he sought public office. She writes, “To have been a thirty-one-year-old unmarried male in Texas would have raised questions about Bush’s sexuality, but these potential questions were laid to rest with his marriage.”

What primarily comes in through this book is how tough Barbara Bush had to be from the beginning to handle the Bush clan. For example, on her first visit to Kennebunkport, George H. W.’s older brother, Prescott, led the teasing, dubbing her “Barsil” for a horse the family used to pull a wagon - from which she derived her enduring nickname “Bar.” And when George H. W. Bush first announced his candidacy for president in 1979, Barbara learned that she had been the subject of a family discussion along the lines of “What are we going to do about Bar?” In her memoir she writes, “That really hurt. They discussed how to make me snappier - color my hair, change my style of dressing, and I suspect, get me to lose some weight.” No wonder she developed protective armor, which this author could not penetrate.



In the end, Mrs. Bush wants to be remembered for her promotion of literacy during her husband’s presidency. It’s therefore ironic that the dust jacket proclaims that the first lady’s “legacy lives in the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literary [sic] and several best-selling books.”

•••

The personality of George Washington has so dominated the story of the American Revolution that many of his able lieutenants have been relegated to history’s sidelines. One of these, Nathanael Greene, is now the subject of Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan, $27.95, 268 pages), an engaging new biography by Rhode Island journalist Gerald M. Carbone

Greene did not appear to have the makings of a soldier. Brought up a Quaker, he was asthmatic, overweight and totally lacking in military experience. But he wrangled an officer’s commission from the Rhode Island legislature and served ably in the siege of Boston. Subsequently, he served under Washington in the unsuccessful defense of New York City, and in the New Jersey campaigns that followed. At the Battle of Brandywine in 1777, Greene’s skillful defense assured the safe withdrawal of Washington’s army.

Greene looked for opportunities for the Continental army to take the offensive, writing Washington in June 1778, “If we suffer the enemy to pass through the Jerseys without attempting anything upon them, I think we shall ever regret it.” Washington agreed. In Mr. Carbone’s words, “Greene had proven his value … both as a field general who could marshal men quickly to the right places, and as a strategist who helped plot the big picture before battles.”

Because Greene was also attentive to logistics he was appointed quartermaster-general in 1778 and served two years in that thankless post. In October 1780, after a critical American defeat at Camden, S.C., Washington placed Greene in command of the southern district, and it was there that Greene would make his mark.

Convinced that a shortage of supplies had brought about the defeat at Camden, Greene reorganized his command, creating separate departments responsible for food, clothing and equipment. He then began a war of maneuver that led Lord Cornwallis on a weary chase far from his supply bases along the Carolina coast. In 1781 and 1782, Greene captured British posts in the South one by one until the last enemy citadel, Charleston, surrendered in December 1782.

Mr. Carbone’s book is not your typical scholarly biography. It is derived from a 52-part series he wrote for the Providence Journal, and in places the book betrays its origins. But the author has made extensive use of the Greene papers, and these afford a rounded portrait of his subject. Greene was a tough disciplinarian; he once ordered the hanging of a suspected deserter without trial as an example to the men. At the same time, he deplored the random barbarism characteristic of war in the southern theater. He directed one officer to restrain American militia who “plunder without mercy and murder the defenceless people just on private [pique].”

At the war’s end, Greene had earned the gratitude of the people, but his personal finances were a shambles. He had guaranteed with his personal credit supplies that were purchased for his threadbare troops, and Congress was not inclined to reimburse him. He returned to Rhode Island fearing that he might be jailed for debt. He wrote to Gen. Henry Knox, “My family is in distress and I am overwhelmed with difficulties.”

Greene moved from Rhode Island to Georgia, where he took over a plantation that had been confiscated from a loyalist. He died there in 1786, much admired but bankrupt.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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