USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page had the extraordinary opportunity to spend time with former First Lady Barbara Bush during the last six months of her life, with the goal of telling her story in a deeply personal way. The result is The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty, which will be released next week.
As a long-time admirer of the Bush family, I’m looking forward to catching a glimpse of what life was like for a woman who was not only married to a President of the United States, but saw her own son assume the mantle of that office at a pivotal time for our nation. From a historical perspective, however, I imagine that the book will be even more fascinating. That’s because George and Barbara Bush were more than witnesses to history—they actively shaped it, with their love for one another as the one constant in a life filled with extraordinary achievements and even greater challenges.
I got small sense of what their lives together must have been like last summer, when I visited my alma mater Texas A&M University with my daughter, and took her to the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum. There, we took in the exhibits that showcased snippets of their personal history—from the limousine that Bush used during his time in the Oval Office to a large chunk of the Berlin Wall that fell during his tenure. Most compelling, however, were the more personal artifacts on display: family photographs from the Bushes’ early days in Texas, letters that the couple wrote to one another while George was fighting in the Pacific during World War II, the dress Barbara wore when the two of them were married. It all served as a reminder that no matter how much larger than life our nation’s leaders may seem, they are very human—subject to the same hopes, dreams, love and tragedy that all the rest of us are.
Having Barbara Bush’s biography, related in large part by her own words, will certainly be valuable in filling out the details of her life as the matriarch of the Bush family. Of course, with such a vast tapestry filled with notable moments, the media have instead chosen to focus on the trivial: What did Barbara really think of Donald Trump? Even before she passed away, her feelings for the current president weren’t much of a secret—and so the excerpts from Page’s book that the media have highlighted don’t pull any punches.
As she continued to witness Trump’s success, Bush said she began to see a party she could no longer support, even as members of the Bush family like her grandson George P. Bush, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, remained in public office.
“I don’t understand why people are for him,” Bush said of Trump in one interview, expressing particular astonishment that women could support him.
Those feelings went back a long ways, as well:
In an entry in her personal diary from the early 1990s, Bush wrote that she viewed Trump as the “real symbol of greed in the 80s.”
“The Trumps are a new word, both of them,” Bush wrote. “Trump now means Greed, selfishness and ugly. So sad.”
After Trump’s election, however, she gave the man some credit for reaching out and trying to heal some of the wounds inflicted by a campaign filled with vitriol on all sides, describing a phone call between Trump and her husband:
“He said that George was a great president and he admired us both,” Bush wrote in her diary. “He said Jeb was strong and a great man. He is trying … at this moment… to be conciliatory. He says he wants to represent all the people.”
Bush also wrote a letter to First Lady Melania Trump in which she expressed her surprise that it was not addressed to former President Bill Clinton, who would have been the nation’s first non-female presidential spouse had Hillary Clinton defeated Trump.
“The world thought I was writing this note to Bill Clinton. I am glad that I am not. I wanted to welcome you to the First Ladies very exclusive club,” Bush wrote in her letter to Melania Trump.
Gracious, as always—but even at that, the book says that Barbra kept a countdown clock that ticked off the days until Trump was out of office close by.
Naturally, there will be those of the Trumpist bent who will be outraged at seeing this—which is rather the media’s point in emphasizing it, as they doubtless want to inflame existing tensions between the establishment wing of the GOP, as represented by the Bushes, and the newer more populist wing. As for me personally, while I generally support Trump’s policies, I have no heart to bash Barbara over this. Quite the contrary, I understand her feelings. Trump had some very unkind things to say about Jeb Bush during the primary, derisively describing him as “low energy”—an assessment that stuck with Jeb so hard that it ran him out of the race early on. If Barbra Bush was anything, she was fiercely protective of her children. In defending her son, I don’t blame her one bit.
Trump’s personal style is also anathema to everything Bush stood for. Staying classy, demonstrating grace under pressure, never descending to the level of personal insults—these were part and parcel of the Bush brand, as demonstrated by the incredible restraint George W. Bush showed in not responding to the terrible personal attacks he endured during his two terms in the White House. Trump, by contrast, is more than happy to get down into the mud with his opponents, and be every bit as nasty with them as they are with him.
But Trump didn’t wrestle control of the Republican Party in spite of that style. The reason he took over the GOP was because of it—and his willingness to address issues that Republicans had largely surrendered to Democrats.
Conservative voters, simply put, had been demoralized by their own party’s refusal to fight. They became sick and tired of the GOP never calling out the media for their obvious bias, never engaging the Democrats on their own level, and never acknowledging that liberals views politics as war—and that they were fighting to win, while we seemed more concerned with no getting dirty.
They watched as the left pounded George W. Bush day after day as an illegitimate, murderous tyrant. Then they saw the media attack John McCain as a philandering, corrupt warmonger as they tried to drag their darling Barack Obama—a Saul Alinsky acolyte with a paper-thin resume—across the finish line. Finally, they witnessed the spectacle of Mitt Romney, possibly the most decent man ever to run for president, getting slandered as a tax-evading, dog-abusing, gay-bashing corporate raider who bought businesses and carved them up just to make sure the wife of one of their employees died of cancer.
And yet, somehow, the Republican Party couldn’t quite rouse itself to do much more than mumble, “Well, I never!” and simply allow Democrats and their allies in the media to control the conversation.
Even worse, Republicans also allowed the country to drift, remorselessly, farther and farther to the left. They just accepted Obamacare as a fact of life, not even bothering to come up with an effective replacement, content to have show votes for bills that they knew would get vetoed. They treated immigration laws, meanwhile, with a wink and a smile, campaigning on rigorous enforcement and then doing little or nothing when elected to office. And how is it that even after winning the White House in 2016, the GOP Congress couldn’t even find a way to defund Planned Parenthood?
If you want to understand why the Republican base nominated Trump, it isn’t really that hard to figure out. Conservatives got tired of losing even when they won.
The establishment wing of the GOP—including the Bush family—bears its own share of the responsibility for allowing that to happen. As it stands, though, many of them seem unwilling to accept that, and still view Trump’s rise as some sort of aberration. That’s probably the reason why Barbara Bush couldn’t bring herself to understand why anyone could support Trump, given his obvious character flaws.
The answer, of course, is that we already tried it her way—and look at where that got us.
That’s not to say Trump will do any better in the end. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. But at least he’s changed the game, and gotten the GOP out of the rut of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The masks have come off the Democrat Party, revealing them for the extremists they are. Same with the media, who aren’t even pretending to be objective anymore. Our politics are more crass, to be sure, but there’s less pretense.
And who knows? If the GOP can find people of sterling character who can also advance a real conservative agenda—and not just play at defense—we can go back to a party that Barbara Bush might recognize.
I’d like that very much.