- - Tuesday, April 2, 2019


By Susan Page

Twelve, $32.50, 432 pages

She was first lady and second lady and there may be few more difficult social or psychological roles to play.

She was a surreal combination of history and humanity and that is probably how Barbara Bush will be remembered and why. It is also this combination that makes this shrewd book memorable. Its author, Susan Page, clarifies the making of a matriarch and the riveting personal history that preceded the woman who became known as the family enforcer and dubbed the silver fox by those who knew her best. The radiance of the hair topping the silver fox was deflected in the confidence of the finely boned face and was understood by those who knew the fox’s personal background.

Her devotion to her family was set in place by tragedy. The death of her 3-year-old daughter, Robin, from leukemia was a nightmare that haunted Mrs. Bush, although she denied the theory that it had turned her hair white and that she used her appearance to build a personal small unit with her other children, especially George W., who was closest to Robin and felt heavy responsibility for his mother.

The woman known as “Bar” was tough, not just because of Robin’s death, but because that was who she was. She was the 16-year-old who told the handsome young George H.W. Bush that she would follow him anywhere in the world, and she did. Yet, her barbed and often clever wit did not match the flaming spite of her rivals, who often resembled a circle of parrots in a gilded cage. It was George H.W. Bush, that ultimate gentleman, who observed that while he did not always agree with the unpleasant remarks of Nancy Reagan he did admire her for her passionate loyalty to her “Ronnie.”

He also suggested, however, that jealousy lay beyond the bitterness of the female political rivals. Barbara was born to a certain style, and they could not compete.

If it seems that much of this well-honed saga is devoted to cattiness on all sides, it also must be said that Barbara Bush gave as good as she got with her whiplash of the tongue. Only those with a sense of honor and sufficient perception, as in the case of her demure daughter-in-law, Laura, was there awareness that this tough lady was “warm and funny.” That was what escaped the sounds of anger that bubbled from Bar. The level of female pettiness was stunning as the rivals of those whom they dubbed “the shrubs” were banned from formal White House events.

Yet, even when the specter of the other woman, in the shape of Jennifer Fitzgerald, who allegedly challenged Mrs. Bush’s marriage, Mrs. Bush hung tough. And it is particularly interesting how many men came to Mrs. Bush’s rescue.

This included James A. Baker III, the brilliant lawyer, who worked with and for President George H.W. Bush for years, and who went so far as to threaten to resign if the other woman was not dislodged from the perch she claimed. Ms. Page has painted with a sensitive brush a portrait of a woman who not only helped her husband to the White House, but made sure he stayed in it. What was always true was that this was a marriage of remarkable solidarity that was supported by both husband and wife. Mrs. Bush marched to her own drummer, but she never lost sight of her family or the man she loved. It was the kind of love match that went far beyond pettiness and jealousy. Friends of the Bushes always argued that it was doubtful that anyone could have sundered the couple — certainly not the cat’s claws of political wives. Ms. Page regales her readers with the horrors of polite bitchiness and describes how Bar overcame it.

The author also quotes C. Boyden Gray in an epilogue, contending that Mrs. Bush was the strength behind the president. Mrs. Bush weathered many domestic crises and, most importantly, won them all.

Most important, her husband at least on one occasion described her rivals as parvenus dependent on clothes and dress. Looking back at their bloody social world, George and Barbara were always allies, and he was as much a bulwark of a man as she was a cunning fox of a woman.

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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