Barbara Bush was a commanding figure, even though she grew shorter as she aged. In The Matriarch, author Susan Page chronicles the fascinating life of one of the most admired First Ladies (and First Mothers) in our nation’s history.
Page had unprecedented access to Barbara Bush’s diaries and conducted extensive interviews with her subject along with family members including both of the former presidents Bush. Although she concedes that she did not produce an authorized biography, she had the full cooperation of Barbara Bush and her family. Initially Barbara Bush only signed up for a single interview, but eventually sat for many more and allowed the author to attend one of the meetings of her famous 1925 Club.
The end result of Page’s research and interviews is fascinating, all-encompassing, and unflinching. Barbara Bush had an extraordinary life and she knew it. The notes section of The Matriarch is a sight to behold, and the quotes lifted from Barbara Bush’s diaries are incredibly self-aware. She engaged in a significant amount of self-reflection, most notably in her development of her position on the topic of abortion.
Barbara Bush was born to a wealthy family in Greenwich, CT. As one of the middle children, she did not get much attention–other siblings were bigger troublemakers, more attractive, or otherwise more remarkable. She clashed with her mother frequently, and it was obvious to Barbara that her mother much preferred her older sister Martha to herself. Barbara was more taken with her father, and in a letter written just before she died she referred to him as the kindest man she ever knew. She was frequently criticized by her mother for her weight. Her older sister was naturally more slender, and Barbara developed both a thick skin and a sense of humor by being constantly referred to as “the fat one.” Barbara thought her mother always seemed to be unhappy–believing that once the next milestone or accomplishment came, she would finally achieve happiness. She thought one of the biggest lessons she learned from her mother was: “You have two choices in life: You can like what you do or you can dislike it. I have chosen to like it.”
Barbara and her older sister were both sent to the same boarding school in South Carolina. After she met George H. W. Bush at a Christmas dance, they were smitten with each other. Barbara was asked out by a number of boys attending nearby schools, and after she declined rumors began to spread that she was a lesbian. That’s when she asked for an engagement announcement be published, in order to put an end to the gossip. There was no proposal, just an understanding between the two of them. George went off to war, and she began to plan the wedding for when he returned.
This is when I noticed a certain dynamic begin in their partnership. George went about his business, and Barbara held things down. She was steady and unwavering, except for a few of the dark times in her life, such as when the couple’s young daughter Robin died, or when Barbara suffered from depression after George took the helm of the CIA. I deeply respect how Page maintains her focus during these times, conveying the depth of Barbara’s despair and anguish, including her contemplation of suicide. It’s so important for everyone to see that famous people struggle with mental health issues. As a widely respected figure, Barbara may have helped to save a few lives by allowing those details to be released.
The Bush family made homes together in Texas, China, and the White House. Barbara became skilled at turning houses into those homes, at networking, and at putting her family first. She was able to flourish with George at her side, and away from the rest of both of their families. She was opinionated, strong-willed, and had a long memory. Eventually George began to notice she was an asset not just in the home, but also for his career. I found it fascinating that Hillary Clinton made resentful comments about how she was treated by the media for being “honest” in her partnership with her presidential husband, while Barbara and her predecessors Nancy Reagan and others were more secretive about the influence over their spouses.
After George passed away I learned much more about him, and The Matriarch helped to flesh out that knowledge. I remember being afraid of the first Persian Gulf war as a child, and seeing the headlines about George H.W.’s re-election bid being denied. I knew he had a dog, and twin daughters about my age, and I thought Barbara looked nice. Reading about her life in its entirety was astonishing and it has helped to expand my respect for her. Anyone who has ever followed my book reviews knows I love a strong female lead, and Barbara was about as strong as they’re made. It’s not just the content of The Matriarch that makes it excellent, though, it’s the way Page weaves the story together, her attention to detail, and her respect for the subject. I highly recommend this book and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to read it.