Cast Away

During her 23-year marriage to a brother of the president of the United States, Sharon Bush dutifully played the role of stay-at-home mother while reaping the rewards of her famous last name. Only now does she understand the terms of inclusion in the world's most powerful family: Membership can be revoked at any time

Sharon Bush is not the best witness in her own defense. Even before the collapse of her 23-year marriage, the excitable, diminutive blonde possessed a fervid, eager anxiety—the kind that some people shy away from, the kind that telegraphed, maybe, that she was trying too hard or wanting too much. And as her marriage was failing, Sharon engaged in the kind of desperate behavior that could be fodder for a country and western song or a lot of sessions in a therapist's office: She made at least one late-night phone call in which she called her husband's lover a "Mexican whore"; she tried to enlist the aid of her fourteen-year-old daughter to break into her husband's bachelor pad; she tried to filch a few strands of his hair for drug testing; and she talked, at length, to a Vanity Fair reporter who in turn reported that Sharon had asked a friend to swab the cheek of her soon-to-be ex-husband's lover's child, so that she could arrange a secret paternity test to determine whether he was the toddler's father. "Do you think someone got to her?" Sharon asked about the story's author. We were in the plush, hushed environment that is Starbucks, and Sharon's eyes at first widened in fear and then narrowed in suspicion, as she fought to keep her voice down and her tears in check.

Which is all to say that anyone who wanted to suggest that Sharon Bush was an unstable person could do so without much trouble, and some people who might want to do that would be, in no particular order, Neil Bush, Sharon's ex-husband and a brother of the president of the United States; George Herbert Walker Bush, her former father-in-law and the forty-first president; her former mother-in-law and former first lady, Barbara Bush; and probably, her former brother-in-law and President George W. Bush, who has better things to do this election year than worry about the ramifications of a nasty family divorce. Various surrogates have in fact been beating the tom-toms, suggesting that Sharon will miss her husband far less than the opportunity to exploit his last name and hitch rides on Air Force One , that Neil is a wonderful man who deserves, as he wrote to his girlfriend, "a loving, caring, energetic, low maintenance, sexy, passionate, intelligent level-headed woman."

On the other hand, Sharon has been through a lot. Her marriage was troubled before May 2002, but the problems certainly crested when she received an e-mail that month from her husband, who was traveling on business in Dubai. "It's very clear that we have met basic material needs, but it is also really obvious that we are failing to meet each other's core needs," Neil wrote. "We're almost out of money and I've lost my patience for being compared to my brothers, for being put down for my inability to make money, and tired of not feeling loved. I'm sure you've lost your patience, that you have felt abandoned and a deep sense of loneliness." Investigating Neil's reference in the correspondence to another woman, Sharon found herself shut out by her in-laws. "You talk to your mother. Neilsie will talk to me," Barbara reportedly told Sharon in a remark that has since gone global.

As if the collapse of her marriage wasn't bad enough, Sharon then had to sit mute during depositions taken last spring in preparation for a divorce trial while her attorney, a colorful man by the name of Marshall Davis Brown, recited from letters Neil had written to his lover, Maria Andrews, during the fall of 2002, when Sharon still believed reconciliation was possible. "You're the only woman I think about, want to be with, and am absolutely committed to," Neil wrote. "Sitting in front of your home with the moon so full in the sky makes my heart long for the day when we can fill each other with the magic and power of love!!" Sometime after that, Maria's ex-husband got into the act, suing Sharon on behalf of his toddler, accusing her of slander because she had told too many people—the employees of a smoothie shop, the readers of the Houston Chronicle —that Neil was the boy's father.

Then, for Sharon, things got really bad. Her vain hope that Neil might return evaporated on March 6, when he married Maria at the palacelike abode of Jamal Daniel—"His wife was my best friend!" Sharon shrieked—and she was seared by the toast given the newlyweds by her seventeen-year-old son, Pierce. "To one of the finest examples of two people in love," he said to his father and new stepmother.

Near self-implosion at our kaffeeklatsch a few days after the wedding, Sharon fought for control, preferring to present the appearance of the confident, outgoing soccer mom she had been rather than the image of the vengeful, fearful divorcée family loyalists were peddling. At 51 she has the flawless skin and faultless highlights of a well-cared-for woman; the first time we met, she'd accessorized with a cheery Pucci-esque coat. She wears, routinely, a substantial gold ring with a pink sapphire and a cluster of tiny rubies—a Christmas present her husband brought from the Middle East. On good days, she feels that it would be entirely possible to find a well-paying part-time job and start fresh. "Please write this," she directed me in one phone call, the long vowels of her New Hampshire upbringing still evident beneath a rushing current of pain. "Please. Say that I'm perfectly grounded, put-together, looking for part-time employment since I'm a full-time mother. That I am very disappointed in Neil. Very disappointed. And that I'm very stable." A day or so later, she was almost perky. "I'm so glad to be rid of this man and the phoniness of the Bushes' family values," she said of Neil and his assorted relations and hangers-on, the ones who suggest she had been in it for the Bush coattails. "Twenty-three years," she said, her voice taut. "You're not in

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