She’s the wife of one president, the mother of another. Barbara Bush occupies a unique place in political history, and a special place in the hearts of many Americans. Part of the reason may be her humor and frankness — she has a wonderful way of telling it exactly as she sees it. And in an exclusive interview with Jamie Gangel, the former first lady shows she is still full of surprises.
Her eldest son may be the leader of the free world, her husband, the 41st president of the United States, but Barbara Bush has her own title.
Jamie Gangel: “Your children have a nickname for you.”
Barbara Bush: “They call me ‘The Enforcer.’”
Barbara Bush: “Because someone else you and I know well does not enforce anything. He’s putty in their hands.”
The “he,” of course, is the man she calls Pop in private, who confirms that family dynamics have not changed with another commander-in-chief in the house.
Gangel: “Word is she still bosses him around?”
George H.W. Bush: “Barbara still orders everyone around.”
Barbara Bush: “Oh bologna.”
George H.W. Bush: “In the family. You do, you do too and you know it.”
Barbara Bush: “Well, why doesn’t anybody do what I order?”
From diary entries, to personal photos, her new book, “Reflections, Life After the White House,” is vintage Barbara Bush. Behind that smile, the signature pearls, she is unpredictably candid, funny, and self-deprecating.
Despite her protests, at 78, she is the matriarch of the most powerful political family in America. Three generations of Bushes have held political office, her father-in-law, former Senator Prescott Bush, her husband, of course, and her sons George and Jeb the current governor of Florida. But whatever you do, don’t call them a dynasty.
The book begins on January 20, 2001, the day she saw her son sworn into the country’s highest office after a controversial election.
Gangel: “What was that day like for you?”
Barbara Bush: “It was very emotional, very, and I was very happy for our children. That had been a terrible fall and a terrible fall for America truthfully.”
Gangel: “Even though this was this amazing day for your family, you were watching Al Gore that day.”
Barbara Bush: “I was thinking about him really. I know I should be thinking marvelous, deep and lofty thoughts. But I find myself thinking of Al Gore and what he must be feeling. I’m sure he thinks he won the race, although I don’t. I do feel sorry for him. We’ve lost and losing is not easy.”
Gangel: “You did not expect to have those feelings that day.”
Barbara Bush: “I didn’t at all. But I thought he was very generous and gracious and that wasn’t easy for him.”
If that day wasn’t easy for Gore, election night, two months earlier, was a roller coaster for the Bush family. At first, they thought they had lost. Then, they thought they’d won.
Barbara Bush: “You know for half an hour, I was the mother, glorious half hour I was the mother of the President-elect of the United States. And then it changed.”
Gangel: “How were you during the recount?”
Barbara Bush: [laughter] “Terrible.”
For the most part, this is not a book that settles scores. But Barbara Bush does write about former President Bill Clinton, the man who defeated her husband in 1992. She recalls Clinton’s eulogy at former President Nixon’s funeral.
From diary: “I wrote in my diary at the time maybe President Clinton was thinking of his own legacy as he was then dealing with the Paula Jones controversy.”
Barbara Bush: “Well, I’m just quoting my diary. And I didn’t quote all my diary either. You want to see it?”
Gangel: “You really don’t like talking about him.”
Barbara Bush: “Not particularly. But there’s certainly no revenge in there. I mean, once Bill Clinton became President of the United States, George and I swore off any criticism of either he or Mrs. Clinton. They’ve got problems enough without us.”
She does let loose on other topics, though. There’s a remarkably frank appraisal of her own son George’s political fortunes.
Gangel: “You told your son the president, first not to run for governor. You said he would not win.”
Barbara Bush: “Against a very popular governor.”
Gangel: “Ann Richards. And you admit in the book you didn’t think he would win when he ran for president.”
Barbara Bush: “I didn’t. I just thought it’s too difficult, and you’re not going to like this, but my gut feeling is that all the media is against George, a Republican, any Republican.”
Gangel: “It’s a good thing he didn’t take your advice, huh?”
Barbara Bush: “Absolutely. He still doesn’t take my advice, that dirty dog.”
That doesn’t mean she’s not still his mother.
Gangel: “You want to tell me the story about when she told him to get his feet off the table?”
George H.W. Bush: “Yeah. She’s sitting in bed writing her book, got her glasses on he’s just come back from running, sweaty as he can be, and she puts her glasses down and looks over there and says, ‘George take your feet off my table.’ Just like that, and I said, ‘That guy’s President of the United States, give him a break.’ ‘Oh no, he knows better than that.’ You know, that kind of thing. Happens all the time.”
Gangel: “Your son got you back. He basically told the world that you’re—”
Barbara Bush: “A lousy cook... A few months later he got his comeuppance, because he choked on a pretzel. I knew that it was a heaven-sent message he should stop knocking his mother’s cooking.”
The Bush family is fiercely loyal, and the parents are quick to defend the president against recent attacks.
Howard Dean: This president played the race card and for that alone, he deserves to go back to Crawford, Texas.
In response, this is Barbara Bush’s blunt assessment of the Democrats trying to beat her son.
Barbara Bush: “So far they’re a pretty sorry group if you want to know my opinion. This is the world according to Barbara Bush. Not George, Not George H.W., not anybody.”
Her husband does not disagree, but knows the mother of the president can get away with saying things the father cannot.
Gangel: “She called them a sorry lot.”
Barbara Bush: “They are a sorry lot.”
George H.W. Bush: “It’s not as—”
Barbara Bush: “As nice as I should be.”
Gangel: “Do you agree?”
George H.W. Bush: “Well,what I do agree is that they’re all together on this vicious rhetoric. And then that’s the sound byte, you see, the one who makes the most, you know, outrageous charges against the president and then gets his 20 seconds on the evening news. Hey, I didn’t ride here on a watermelon cart. I know how it works.”
Gangel: “You talk about watching your sons go into politics in the book. What’s it like watching them go through this?”
Barbara Bush: “I don’t like it. I mean but what mother would? You don’t like it when your child’s playing Little League and someone says he’s a lousy player. You can criticize me, but, well, you cannot criticize my children. And don’t criticize George Bush, Sr. either.”
No surprise, Barbara Bush dedicates her book to her six children and to her husband whom she calls “the world’s best man.”
Barbara Bush: “It’s true. Sometimes we’ve laughed through our tears.”
Gangel: “You have been married for 58 years now.”
George H.W. Bush: “It doesn’t seem like a day over 57 either. This has been a good marriage.”
Barbara Bush: “And I’m thinking of leaving him.”
Don’t be fooled it is the standard George and Barbara show. Not widely known, George Bush loves to imitate Johnny Carson’s old psychic routine. But beyond the antics, the book also reveals that this prominent family is, in some ways, ordinary, especially with 14 grandchildren under foot.
George H.W. Bush: “Why didn’t we get the smaller size this year? They have them.”
Barbara Bush: “You really want to discuss this now?”
Years ago, at her home in Kennebunkport, Maine, Barbara Bush posted her now infamous rules on the bathroom door. But she has learned to accept that her grandchildren don’t take them too seriously. The Enforcer may expect a lot from her family, but she also appreciates the pressure of growing up in the public spotlight. It’s a lesson the president’s twin daughters, caught drinking underage, learned the hard way.
Gangel: “They got into some trouble along the way that hit the newspapers.”
Barbara Bush: “Well, they were the daughters of the president and they are wonderful. And I think I said in my book, and it’s true, all 14 grandchildren are perfect without their parents. That is true. And so they acted a little bit like their father when he was young.”
She’s a wise grandmother who sees life in perspective. Except, perhaps, when looking at herself. Despite all her years in public life, Barbara Bush insists she never thinks about her own legacy.
Barbara Bush: “No, never. Honestly, I think it’s a generational thing. I’ve built my life around the world’s greatest man, and the world’s greatest children and grandchildren and friends. And never thought about that.”