I admit that it took me a long time to come around to Barbara Bush. In my younger days, when she was just the wife of one president and not yet the mother of another, I kept a running tally of her sins. I wasn’t on her side of the political fence, and there were quotes that didn’t make it into various hagiographies that stuck with me—the time she more or less called Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro a bitch (“Rhymes with…”). Or when she supposedly snubbed Al Franken when he tried to bait her on an airplane in 2000 (“I’m through with you,” she allegedly said to him, more than once). Or when, in 2005, she surveyed the New Orleans evacuees at the Astrodome in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and declared that they were “underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”
I thought about all of that and more when I read Sunday that Bush had decided, at 92, to let nature take its course and stop seeking medical treatment for her failing heart and lungs. My response was: Of course she did. The decision was pragmatic and hard-nosed and seemed to me perfectly in keeping with how Bush had lived her life; it also came a month or so after my own father died in hospice care, so I have some understanding of what she and her family are going through. Barbara Bush died Tuesday, a family spokesman said.
It struck me, too, that, as Bush approached the end of her life, and as I’ve aged and faced my own challenges as a woman on this planet, I have come to a different understanding of her. The term “polarizing figure” wasn’t in use during most of her many public years, but I see that Bush was that for me, and that only in separating image from reality could I come to understand that she hasn’t been so different from two women on my end of the political spectrum—Hillary Clinton and Ann Richards. (And, despite our differences politically, we do seem to agree that the behavior of Donald Trump is, as Bush said in a 2016 interview, “incomprehensible.”)
When I look at Bush’s life now, for instance, I see one of tremendous difficulties and her struggles to make peace with them. She grew up with a mother to whom she was never good enough; she married a man she desperately loved but who, most likely, rarely gave a thought to putting her first, except, perhaps, when he named his three World War II bombers after her. Like others, Barbara Bush understood the rules of womanhood during that era, and followed them impeccably, even when it meant traipsing to Odessa and then to Midland, Texas, which could not have been the first choice of a Smith student descended from a fine old East Coast family. It was there in West Texas that she buried her three-year-old daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia, and was so depressed that her oldest son felt it was his job to stay home and try to josh her back to life.
Over time, Bush became the supermom to five surviving children, and the wife of a man whose work and ambitions caused them to move 29 times. Maybe by a certain period the Bushes had enough money to have plenty of help, but when I think about moving kids—changing schools, finding doctors, worrying about whether they would or would not make friends, etc.—and the logistics of buying, selling, and packing up home after home after home, of building a new life and finding real friends in every new city, I wonder how she did it. And as time went on, and her husband became a fixture of American political life, Bush had to do it with a smile on her face every minute of every day. Even before trolls and social media, women in her position—political wives of the highest order—had to put the best face on whatever situation their husbands roped them into. No wonder she got tired of the constant intrusions and learned to build the kind of psychic walls our current president could do well to master.
Who, really, deserved to get behind them, anyway? Bush put on her trademark pearls and had her white hair sturdily coiffed and marched forward, armed and, I would say, dangerous. The fact that most people were afraid to cross her means to me that she wasn’t always nice (even her son noted her temper in a book), and that she wasn’t afraid to use her power, including calling in chits of her own. But if you take out the politics, she looks like a pretty good role model to women of all stripes.
As a mother myself, I think, too, about how she must have felt when three of her sons were the subject of harsh media criticism. I’m not saying reporters were wrong—See: Neil’s Silverado Scandal; Jeb’s fiscal issues in Florida (personal and professional); George’s fabrications about weapons of mass destruction, and so on—but I think about my loyalty to my own son, and how the onslaught of criticism would work on a mother’s psyche, hardening and toughening it like so much scar tissue. No wonder she tried to keep Jeb from running in 2016, probably as much to protect herself as her third-born son from what she assumed was coming. “We’ve had enough Bushes in the White House,” Bush said, on the record, and I have no doubt that, political dynastics notwithstanding, her instincts were better than those of the men closest to her.
It seemed to me her later years might have been the most satisfactory ones, when the cameras and scribes weren’t omnipresent. Bush could go out to an Astros game and host her literacy galas and visit with friends and family with some degree of freedom, though her willingness, like that of so many frank women, to speak more honestly, did land her in hot water. (That Katrina comment isn’t going to disappear from her Wikipedia page, I would guess.) But at the same time, no one was around to force her to backtrack or recant or apologize, and her aged face—so full of furrows from smoking and sunning in Maine—had an ease and an authenticity I came to admire, even if I didn’t always like what she said. By the time she hit ninety, Bush had to have known she had done her best for those around her, and the choice to let go seems as pragmatic as and consistent with so many she has made before. She’s had a good life, but a hard one, and maybe remembering her for her toughness instead of her grandmotherliness isn’t such a bad thing.