Review The Matriarch by Susan Page: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty
A deeply admiring biography of the former first lady.
Veteran journalist Page, who is currently the Washington Bureau chief of USA Today and has covered six presidential administrations, had the good fortune to conduct five interviews with Barbara Bush (1925-2018) in her final months, and, as the author notes, “her mind was sharp to the end.” Also sharp was Bush’s tongue—so much so that even her own sons had to ask her to tone it down. Page begins with Bush’s memorial service in Houston and then moves to her most wrenching experience—the loss of her daughter, 3, to leukemia in 1953—before settling into a steady chronology of her revered subject. The author notes that Barbara Pierce (not yet Bush) had a difficult relationship with her own mother, who demeaned her for her appearance. She met her future husband at a country club party shortly after Pearl Harbor, and they married a few years later. Then they moved to Texas to start their lives—and successfully so. Page takes us through their campaigns, victories, losses, and disappointments. As the author notes, Bush assumed a traditional wife/homemaker/mother role while her husband made many of the decisions for the family. This choice did not endear her to feminists of the time. She would not criticize her husband (or, later, her sons) in public, though during the 1980 presidential campaign (her husband was running to be Reagan’s vice president), she fell silent about her support for abortion rights, and, later, she was displeased with her son’s entanglement in Iraq. The author also explains the Bushes’ growing friendship with the Clintons. Opponents of Donald Trump have an ally in Barbara Bush, who disliked him long before he disparaged her son Jeb in the 2016 primaries. In a late interview, she also expressed unhappiness about the current course and priorities of the GOP.
A mostly sweet biography with occasional small drops of none-too-bitter acid.