Sunday, June 23, 2019

Q&A with Susan Page

Susan Page is the author of the new biography The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty. Page is the Washington bureau chief of USA TODAY, and she lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Barbara Bush, and how was the book's title chosen?

A: Barbara Bush was no fan of the title! She didn’t like the word “matriarch,” and she liked the word “dynasty” even less. She thought that both words sounded pretentious, and that “dynasty” in particular dripped with a sense of entitlement. I asked her what she thought the title of her biography should be. Without missing a beat, she replied: The Fat Lady Sings Again.

All that illustrates why I wanted to explore her life. Whether she embraced the description or not, she was undeniably the matriarch of a sprawling family -- and of a family that has been an American dynasty in terms of public service, especially defined more broadly than just elective office. And she had a wonderful sense of humor, including about herself.

Q: As you note, Barbara Bush was the only person besides Abigail Adams to be the wife of one president and the mother of another. How would you describe Barbara Bush's relationships with George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush?

A: I did well over 100 interviews for this book, and at the end of most of them, I asked an unanswerable question: “If George H.W. Bush hadn’t married Barbara Pierce, would he have become president?” There were two people who were certain he would have become president no matter what -- George H.W. Bush and Barbara Pierce Bush! But most of the other people who knew them, family and friends and staffers, told me they thought the answer was “no.”

I think they were right. Barbara Bush became the indispensable partner for George Bush. She not only took the lead in raising their children and providing a stable home base. She also became an adviser with a sharp political sense and a shrewd judgment about people and their motives. He trusted her voice above all others.

In an interview for the book, I asked George W. Bush a version of that question: If his mother hadn’t been Barbara Bush, would he have become president? He thought for a moment, and then said he thought the answer was no. The self-confidence, the determination, the resilience she conveyed to him was critical, he said.

By the way, Barbara Bush drew a distinction between herself and Abigail Adams in their historic distinction. Abigail Adams died several years before her son, John Quincy Adams, became president. But Barbara Bush was around to see her son in that high office -- and to give him occasional advice, whether he wanted it or not.

Q: In the book, you discuss Barbara Bush's attitude toward feminism. How would you characterize it?

A: In a word: Complicated.

Barbara Bush walked the walk of feminism, in my view. She was independent and strong-minded. But she refused to talk the talk. She thought the women’s movement, especially in its early stages, had dissed her and the life choices she made. In one interview, I tried to make her say she was a feminist. We went around and around. I finally gave up. “You’re being very slippery about this,” I said in defeat. She replied, happily, “Yes, I am.”

Q: How would you describe Barbara Bush's legacy today?

A: When I was writing her biography, I wondered if anyone would be interested in a biography of a former, one-term First Lady who had moved out of the White House a quarter-century earlier. We found with the outpouring of attention, accolades and emotion at her death that there was. 

She left a legacy on some specific issues, like literacy and HIV/AIDS. But I think she also left a broader legacy, one of authenticity and candor and mutual respect and civility in politics -- qualities that seem to be in short supply these days.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m now working on a biography of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She and Barbara Bush are different in many ways, of course, but they are both formidable women who often have been underestimated in the past.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The biggest surprise in researching The Matriarch was this: The defining experience of Barbara Bush’s life was the death of her daughter Robin at age three. It gave Barbara Bush a survivor’s armor, and it made her more empathetic to the troubles people can encounter through no fault of their own. It shaped her views on just about everything that followed, including her sense of what really matters in life.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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