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New biography explores the ‘underestimated’ Barbara Bush

It has been nearly a year since the death of Barbara Bush. Now, Susan Page’s new biography of the former first lady, “The Matriarch,” reveals the heartache and happiness that shaped Bush’s life. Judy Woodruff sits down with Page to discuss Bush’s childhood, her conflicted feelings about the women’s movement, her “terrible relationship” with Nancy Reagan and more.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Next week marks a year since the death of Barbara Bush.

    A new biography, "The Matriarch," by Susan Page of USA Today reveals the heartache and happiness that shaped the life of a woman who left on indelible mark on modern American history.

    Judy Woodruff talked with Page recently for our "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Susan Page, the book is "The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty."

    Thank you for talking with us.

    What a personal biography this is, I think the most personal I have ever read of a first lady. And you say that she was probably the most underestimated first lady of our modern era. What did you mean?

  • Susan Page:

    People thought they knew Barbara Bush. They thought she was approachable, and warm, and a grandmother with that cloud of white hair.

    And she was all those things, but she was more than that, in ways I think most Americans didn't realize. She was a hugely influential political adviser to her husband and to her son. She spoke with them behind the scenes on issues like confronting the AIDS crisis or dealing with the end of the Cold War.

    There are ways in which she set a standard for her family, led this remarkable American family, that I thought was a story that ought to be told.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Susan, you write she was raised in a family of privilege, but she had a difficult relationship with her mother that had an effect on her for the rest of her life.

  • Susan Page:

    She had a tough relationship with her mother. And her mother would make fun of her weight and compare her to her older sister, Martha, who was very pretty, who was a model, who was on the cover of the college issue of "Vogue."

    And this left, I think, a wound on Barbara Bush that she had for her whole life.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that stayed with her.

    What about her relationship with her husband? They were 16 and 17 years old when they met. They married just three years later, and it was a marriage for the ages.

  • Susan Page:

    They met at this high school dance at the Greenwich Country Club.

    And I asked George H.W. Bush, do you remember what caught your eye that night? And he said, "She was so beautiful."

    They had a long marriage, 73 years, ups and downs, but they were fiercely devoted to one another at the end. And in the interviews I did with her, clearly, her health was failing. She wasn't afraid of death. The only thing that worried her, I thought, was the idea she would die before he did, and he would be left alone.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A woman of strong personality, and yet, for much of his career, she followed him around. If he had a different assignment, a different appointment, she went along and took care of the children.

  • Susan Page:

    She was a woman of her generation. And she did follow him.

    When he decided to move to Texas, she said, "I have always wanted to live in Odessa," which I suspect wasn't entirely true.

    But, over time, they became equal partners. Over time, he came to trust her voice and her judgment. And even when he was facing the biggest decisions, for instance, a decision about what to do after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, she would be one of just five or six people in the room with him as he debated what to do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Susan, you had remarkable access to her. You interviewed her a number of times. You covered her years ago, but then, closer to her death, you had access to much of her diaries and come across some remarkable personal information, the feud she had ongoing with former first lady Nancy Reagan.

  • Susan Page:

    All these years later — she was 92 years old in failing health.

    She became very animated when she talked about her views of Nancy Reagan. They just had a terrible relationship. They were very different women, very different priorities. And she kind of bit her tongue, I think, for years with Nancy Reagan, when Nancy Reagan was first lady and she was second lady.

    When the Bushes moved out of the White House, evicted by Bill Clinton, came back to Houston, two days later, Nancy Reagan called to try to explain away an interview in which she had complained about how the Bushes had treated Ronald Reagan after he left the White House.

    And Barbara Bush had finally had enough. And she said to Nancy Reagan: "I'm tired of hearing explaining from you. I don't want to talk to you again. Don't call me again."

    And then she said, "Oh, I hear another phone ringing." And she hung up.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You do write about the era that she lived in. She raised her children. She was a stay-at-home mother.

    And she had conflicted feelings about the women's movement, about the feminist movement.

  • Susan Page:

    You know, she felt sometimes dissed, I think, by the — especially the early days of the women's movement. It raised questions about the value of the choices that she had made.

    In my view, she really walked the walk of a feminist. She was strong-minded and independent. She wasn't afraid to speak up. But she refused to talk the talk.

    We had one interview where I said: "I think you're a feminist. Don't you think you're a feminist?" And she refused to say that. And I finally gave up and said: "You're being very slippery about this." And she said: "Yes, I am."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And she was a Republican, was married to George H.W. Bush.

    And yet, Susan, you write she had views about abortion in a surprising way.

  • Susan Page:

    You know, when I was going through her diaries, I opened her diary from 1980, when her husband was making his first bid for the presidency.

    And in the diary, I found four pages tucked in, folded over, yellowed, tucked inside. I pulled them out. At the top was written in her hand thoughts about abortion. And this was, in essence, a letter to herself as she tried to sort out her views on abortion.

    And she drew lessons for this from the life and death of her daughter Robin. She said that: "When Robin was born, I felt her soul enter her body. When Robin died, just 3 years old, of leukemia, I felt her soul leave her body, and, therefore, abortion isn't murder. It should be left to the mother, the father and the doctor."

    And at the bottom of this page, these four pages she wrote, "Needs lots more thought."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Hmm.

    But it was one way in which she did go against Republican — Republican orthodoxy. She was a supporter of Republicans until the last president, Republican president of her lifetime, Donald Trump.

  • Susan Page:

    She was not a supporter of Donald Trump.

    Now, for one thing, Donald Trump, of course, had defeated her son for the nomination in 2016. But she also had written years earlier that Donald Trump was a symbol of the greed of the 1990s. She said that in her diary at the time.

    And she worried, I think, about the direction of the party and about the quality of the American political debate. And in the last interview I did with her in February of 2018, I said: "Do you still think you're a Republican?" And she said: "No, I would probably say not."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Talk to us, finally, Susan, about her husband. He did outlive her by a number of months.

    But he never got over her death, did he?

  • Susan Page:

    No.

    And he wanted to go back to Kennebunkport, I think, one more summer, and he was able to do that. And an aide told me that he was sitting on the porch at Kennebunkport that last summer, the summer with — after Barbara had gone, and remembered when they agreed to get married, walking up that driveway, two teenagers, just an understanding that they were going to be together forever.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I remember. He said: "I didn't get down on my knee, but we knew. We knew that we were going to be married."

    Susan Page, it's a wonderful book, "The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty."

    Thank you.

  • Susan Page:

    Thank you, Judy.

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