It seems that Barbara Bush, who died a year ago this month, was more Bridget Jones than Mamie Eisenhower. Caustic. Funny. Vain. Spiteful. These are just a few of the adjectives that come to mind as I read Susan Page’s new biography of the first lady, “The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty.”
Behind the pearls, sun hats, and spaniels, there was a woman sometimes living in opposition to herself, a tension revealed by a habit that now sets her apart, a throwback pastime that’s been excised by social media—the art of diary keeping. Page was given unprecedented access to Bush’s diaries, which date back to 1948, and include entries just days before her death.
This is where the feisty Barbara (the one I prefer) emerges: “My-oh-my it was a tense evening,” she writes about a dinner at the White House just days after the chaotic election of 2000 that, after weeks of hanging chad chaos, put her son in the Oval Office.
“What absolute nerve, “she fumed about then-President Bill Clinton. “He was impeached because he lied to the American people. I have come to the conclusion that he really does not know right from wrong.” Ouch.
Here’s another Barbara-barb. “Aren’t we a funny country? We all go to each other’s funerals and Library openings. At the funerals you can see people thinking like the cartoons with a bubble over their heads: This guy was a rotten lying mean guy and all these liars are saying these nice untrue things about him.”
The diary was a way for her to sheath her views from an intrusive public, ever more ravenous for the first lady’s thoughts on all manner of social issues percolating in the ’70s and ’80s. “The elected person’s opinion is the one the public has the right to know,” was Bush’s default talking point, but she retreated into her private world of note taking to weigh the pros and cons of the issues.
“Thoughts on abortion,” she scribbled on the page. “When does the soul enter the body is the #1 question,” the diary reads. “If the answer to that question is the moment the first breath is taken, then abortion is not murder. What does Barbara Bush feel about abortion,” she continued in the third person.
She also used her diary as a therapist, confiding in it her perceived shortcomings as a woman. “They discussed how to make me snappier,” she revealed about campaign operatives who wanted her to be more Dynasty-era glamorous. “I know it was meant to be helpful, but I wept quietly,” she wrote.
These entries are relics of a bygone era, much to the disadvantage of historians and biographers. Presidents and first ladies of today and tomorrow have their social media accounts, but they reveal what they want us to see—not the raw, the frail, and the inner workings of their minds.
Bush is often compared to Abigail Adams, the only other woman who had a husband and son who became president. Her best legacy, however, is another commonality between the two women: their penchant for the written word. Recall those “Remember the Ladies” letters she wrote to her hubby during the height of the Revolution.
Here’s a sampling from her return voyage to America in 1788: “further to be known from the page of History. I do not think the four years I have past abroad the pleasentest part of my Life. Tis Domestick happiness and Rural felicity in the Bosom of my Native Land, that has charms for me. Yet I do not regreet that I made this excursion since it has only more attached me to America.”
I am just as guilty as the next millennial for letting Instagram usurp my proclivity for writing. I did, however, journal about a trip to France last year, and will squirrel my notebook away in the hopes that one day my grandchild will find it amusing. My musings mostly centered on the historic places I saw, and my minor irritations in coach. I’ll never reach the heights of Abigail’s 18th-century eloquence.
The photos on my social media accounts tell, literally, a filtered story, much like Bush’s public appearances. But a diary allows you to go deeper, reflect honestly, and record your unvarnished voice in a given moment, even if it falls short of Abigail’s prose, and Barbara’s acute insights.
After seeing how Bush’s life (and those of her precursors) was so enriched by this written conversation with herself, I’ve decided to tweet less, and journal more — if for no other reason than to savor experiences, and relish in the fact that I’m still here. As Bush wrote, “Amazing life. Lucky lucky me.”