The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty
The late Barbara Bush obviously gained her place in history through her husband and son, but she’s “a person worth knowing in her own right,” said Andrew Ferguson in The Wall Street Journal. In this “excellent” biography by USA Today’s Susan Page, the nation’s only first lady who lived to also see a son serve as president emerges as a woman “full of incongruities: generous and fiercely protective, sharp-tongued and kindly, capable of great warmth and utterly lacking in sentimentality.” Her life story might seem foreign to anyone not born in 1925 into a suburban New York family that sent its children to prep schools, but once she wed George H.W. Bush at 19, she changed her husband’s story as much as he changed hers. Her sharp political instincts became crucial to his success.
Page’s book offers “no shortage of personal and political drama,” said Chris Gray in the Houston Chronicle. She begins the story in 1953, the year the Bushes’ 3-year-old daughter, Robin, was diagnosed with and died of leukemia soon after the family settled in Texas. Much later, we learn that Barbara contemplated suicide in the ’70s when rumors swirled about her husband having an affair with a CIA aide. But Page doesn’t sensationalize. She instead paints a portrait of a complex woman who followed her own compass. Barbara Bush feuded with Nancy Reagan and despised Donald Trump, but, crucially, bonded easily with Mikhail Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa. She also kept her precisely thought-out pro-choice views to herself but found ways to push her husband, and the nation, to confront the AIDS crisis with compassion and urgency.
In 2017, months before her death, Bush made a surprising confession to Page, said Jessica Taylor in NPR.org. Having seen Trump’s takeover of the party she’d helped define, she no longer considered herself a Republican. But that’s just the book’s news fodder. The rest is the engaging life story of a woman who “vitally shaped two presidencies,” and by that token “is, perhaps, one of the most underappreciated figures of the last century.” ■