Barbara Swings Away

"There's the great Barbara Bush Children's Hospital," of Portland, Maine, the woman it was named after says as we approach for a recent visit. "And--this makes me laugh--look at the nurses standing across the street smoking." Inside, on a walk through the maternity ward, the former First Lady pokes a little fun at the hospital president when he coos, "Isn't she sweet!" at a newborn in a little blue cap: "You think that's a she, do you?" To a new father who boasts that his child came into this world after only three pushes, she purrs, "Yes, it was easy for you." Then, out of earshot: "Typical. The men always go pale. They used to sit outside and drink martinis."

America's favorite grandmother keeps up a running comedy routine on and off the speaker's circuit, where she's a regular these days. But Mrs. Bush is more pointed in her humor than almost anyone else in public life. With candor in politics in such short supply, she has been celebrated for her barbs all the way back to her "rhymes with rich" reference to Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.

"She may be one of the last really outspoken public figures," says Rob Allyn, a Republican political consultant in Dallas who has worked for the Bush family, "because with people coming of political age today, message control is the doctrine." A doctrine Barbara Bush never needed, since her family is her message and she is the one who controls it.

At 78, with one son in the White House and another in the Florida governor's mansion, the self-described Bush family "enforcer" seems to feel less compunction than ever about keeping a lid on her blunt assessments. Her new memoir, "Reflections: Life After the White House," was toned down considerably by her editors at Scribner. "Yes, Miss Frank over there," her husband says over lunch at their home in Kennebunkport. To ward off libel suits, he says, "the publisher had to take a lot out." In her public remarks, she tries to stick to a prepared text: "If I didn't have notes, I'd be telling them everything I know," she says on the morning of our trip to the hospital. "You'll see by the end of the day." Or sooner.

At the hospital, she reads a story to some young patients and makes them laugh. But back in the van for the drive home to Kennebunkport, she says that the book she was given to read was without educational value and that the hospital administrators were obsequious--a quality she dislikes. "They thanked me three times, when once would have been fine." Then, softening abruptly, she thinks back to that morning's visit to the hospital's neonatal ICU, where she saw premature infants in incubators. "Where do you draw the line" in saving those who would not have survived in another time? "What kind of quality of life? It's the same thing with old age. Are we doing the right thing?" Then again she says of one severely impaired newborn, "But, they say she's brought great happiness..."

As Mrs. Bush notes repeatedly in her book, she herself has a pretty great life--and even a place in history as the only woman since Abigail Adams to marry one president and give birth to another. Yet the losses are still with her, too, and she continues to keep close tabs on scores left unsettled, with everyone from the Clintons to the reporter who wrote more than a decade ago that her husband didn't know what a grocery-store scanner was. "That man," she says pointedly, "was not even there" when George expressed what turned out to be a politically fatal interest in a new generation of scanners. "But I'm not bitter, I'm just sad. I want you to know that."

If she has a license to vent, her friends say, it's because she herself has never doubted her right to speak candidly. "She never had to fine-tune herself to be salable in the world of politics," says her friend Georgette Mosbacher. Which, of course, has made her highly salable in the world of politics.

It probably helps, too, that she exerts her power in a nonthreatening way. America loved watching Barbara Bush fearlessly follow in petite Nancy Reagan's footsteps-- in size 10 shoes with a low heel. In the '80s of Tom Wolfe's social X-rays and Wall Street's trophy wives, Mrs. Bush got enormous credit for appearing not to mind her matronly appearance--for any woman still breathing, a rather stunning exercise in message discipline. And though tough as they come, she is also capable of flashes of compassion for political opponents, once they have been dispatched. In her latest book, she describes Al Gore as exceedingly gracious on the day of her son's Inauguration. "I did feel sorry for Al Gore. That's a terrible time," she tells me. "Everybody's sort of the same. Though some I like better than others, of course."

Mrs. Bush herself is not hard to like, especially when, like many people with a keen eye for the brown spot on the fruit, she by no means overlooks her own perceived transgressions. She does not aim to please, exactly, but does hold herself accountable, and often frets over whether she's been too brusque. Always, she disparages her appearance and downplays her considerable skills: "All I ever did was marry and birth well."

These days, she says, she does not presume to give the president advice, and neither does her husband. When they do talk, they mostly chat about family matters--though not, she says about her son Neil's recent divorce. "He cares about all the family problems and at the moment it's Neil. But George doesn't get involved."

It's actually "a pain in the neck" to be the sibling of a sitting president, she says, and tells how her daughter, Doro Koch, picketed outside Vice President Al Gore's residence "in disguise" during the 2000 recount. "That's Doro!" Mrs. Bush hoots when telling about it. "She felt better" after yelling at the Gores' house for a while, Mrs. Bush says.

Those who question President Bush's response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks might be alarmed to learn that the president's brother Marvin was in danger that day, trapped in a subway train under Wall Street. But Mrs. Bush says she did not fully appreciate the hit the country had taken for a long time. "I thought, 'This is just one more horrible thing, and we'll get over it'."

To some degree, her "I'm not even a college graduate" attitude seems an attempt to put others at ease. But Mrs. Bush's mother, Mildred Pierce, was no slouch at keeping her daughter humble. According to Mrs. Bush's first memoir, when desserts were dished out at the Pierce table, she and her slender sister were told, in one breath, "Eat up, Martha. Not you, Barbara." Even her father, Marvin Pierce, whom she adored, used to return her letters to her, corrected.

Pierce was president of the McCall Corp., whose publications painted a cozy view of the American family. Yet this was not quite the case in his own home in Rye, N.Y., where Mrs. Bush grew up. She later wrote that her mother had spent her whole life "waiting for her ship to come in," never realizing that it already had, and she vowed not to follow that unhappy example. Instead, at 19, Barbara dropped out of Smith to marry the first boy she'd ever kissed, and as a young political wife began promoting her own domestic vision of the family she calls "nearly perfect." According to friends, she remains slightly amazed that dashing Poppy Bush chose her. Devoted as he is in return, he sometimes teases her in a way that not all wives would appreciate--though she doesn't seem to mind. At lunch in Kennebunkport, when I ask the former president if he has read her latest book, she calls out from across the table, "You'd better say you did or it's divorce!" and he calls back, "But Barbara, where would you go?"

One of the most startling passages in her book is an anecdote about how panicked and vulnerable she felt when she and her husband had to leave the White House. An aide told her she would have to keep a paid staff. "I couldn't believe my ears. She said Betty Ford... still spent $100 a month on postage alone. I felt like crying." Though her insecurity seems irrational given her family's wealth, she writes, "Everyone knew I had never earned any money, as I had never seriously worked in the 48 years we had been married. So besides losing the election, now at 68 I was going to have to work?"

Barbara's job was always managing the family, and she still often plays the grown-up to her boyish husband, whose 80th birthday is coming up this year. When we return from the hospital to their compound in Kennebunkport, he is tooling around the driveway on his newest toy, a Segway. And no sooner does she dash inside to trade her knit suit for khakis than he starts calling for his lunch so he won't miss tee time. A few minutes later, when she's showing guests some family pictures in the living room and he's still waiting outside on the terrace for lunch to be served, he finally presses his nose against the window, makes a goofy face and yells, "Let's eat! Let's eat!"

The Bush family likes to make quick work of meals, in this case a salad followed by blueberry pie, and as they head out for the golf course, the former president opens an interesting window into his postpresidential life when he insists that I stick around and use the pool: "I went to the Wal-Mart the other day, and bought women's bathing suits in all different sizes, all very discreet," he says. When I see Mrs. Bush again, the morning after the president's televised appeal for $87 billion in additional funding for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, she is with a Republican congresswoman at a school in Connecticut. Afterward, a TV reporter asks her if she watched her son's address, and back in the car, her aide apologizes profusely for having failed to block the intrusion. "Of course I watched my son on TV!'' Mrs. Bush responds, but seems less annoyed by the reporter than by the needless expense of the corsage she had been given at the school: "I hate flowers! Waste of money."

Later, in a Hartford hotel suite where she is killing time before a speaking engagement, she says she spoke to the president after the speech, and "was told by my son not to give any political thoughts to you." On the war itself, then, had he underestimated our challenges in Iraq? "I have no idea," she huffs. "The press feels that, but that's not what your mother's for."

In her book, she twice suggests that she is ambivalent at best about the death penalty, but when I ask her about this, she again bristles, and says this is not the case. "Well, nobody believes in capital punishment." Karla Faye Tucker, who was put to death in Texas when George W. was governor, "got so much attention just because she was a woman." As for Paul Hill, who killed an abortion doctor and was executed in Florida, she says, "I'm sure Jeb was torn, but that did not bother me. [Hill] is very happy up there where he thinks he's going to be rewarded. What's the difference between him and a terrorist?"

"But oh, George Bush is going to kill me,'' she says, rising from her seat. "Can't we just be friends and have dinner?" As table chat, she asks whether I think JonBenet Ramsey's mother is guilty of murder. As she's passing out the after-dinner toothpicks, I notice that I seem to have lost my little Secret Service pass, and she laughs. "Oooh, let's dump her," she says to her aide. "I'm not sure we want her around anymore anyway." Just joking, of course.

During that night's Q&A session, the questions are the kind of softballs she says she can't stand: When is she going to host "Saturday Night Live"? Has Millie gone to doggy heaven? Then someone asks whether she considers herself a strong woman, and she smiles. "Yes," she says, for once jettisoning the what-do-I-know routine. "People tell me I'm formidable." No joke.

Barbara Swings Away | News