COLUMN ONE : First Lady Takes the Gloves Off : Barbara Bush is speaking out on tough issues and is under fire by some in the press. The shift from her American Queen Mum image, and her convention speech tonight, show she’s entered the political fray.
For the first time in her long run in the public eye, Barbara Bush is taking a beating in the press.
Nothing personal, of course. But George Bush is on the mat and there’s no fun in slapping him around anymore. So the nabobs of the cultural elite have turned on Barbara, the nation’s revered Grandmother-in-Chief, heroine of the white-haired and chubby masses, the untouchable Bar.
The New Republic, ever ahead of the trend curve, started it off in late June with a touching little essay about the First Lady titled “Sacred Cow.” She is described as Nancy Reagan with impeccable WASP manners, a backstage manipulator of a weak husband who makes Hillary Clinton look like a novice, and a “shameless” master politician who gets away with murder by alternately charming and intimidating the press.
But it fell to Vanity Fair, chronicler of modern American mores and purveyor of high-tone celebrity smut, to serve as picador of the President’s wife.
In a long profile in the July issue, Vanity Fair informs us that the public Barbara Bush is just a cunningly constructed mask concealing the real First Shrew. We learn that her stepmother fears her, anonymous White House staffers describe her as “difficult” . . . “tough as nails” . . . “demanding” . . . “autocratic.”
The author’s own judgment is that she is “a caustic and judgmental woman, who has labored to keep her sarcasm in check--with incomplete success.” There’s no mistaking the Barbara Bush portrayed here--she is a hard, mean, manipulative woman hiding behind her fake pearls, her false modesty and her upper-class demeanor.
In short, Vanity Fair can’t quite say it, but it rhymes with rich.
Why this sudden turn in Barbara Bush’s image?
Mrs. Bush, sitting primly in a straight-backed chair in the formal West Sitting Room of the White House residential quarters during an interview last week, agreed that--until now--she has been treated very kindly by the press, portrayed for years as a sort of an American Queen Mum. Why the change now, she is asked.
“Let’s guess,” she says with a tight smile that barely conceals a hint of menace. “We’ve got four months before the election. How do you get to George Bush? Clobber his wife.”
This is not the docile, restrained Barbara Bush we have seen until now. This is not so much a new Barbara Bush--she has always been a woman of immense will, wicked wit and hidden hurt--but a calculated use of the First Lady as a new weapon in her husband’s depleted political arsenal.
This is Barbara Bush without the kid gloves, a combative, sharply partisan First Lady, who, like the President, will do whatever it takes to extend their lease on the White House.
This change in style and tone is a measure of her husband’s desperation, and of her own frustration at a lifetime of self-imposed restraint. No longer will she limit herself to the safe subjects of family, literacy and good works. Starting with a series of media interviews last week, Mrs. Bush has begun to speak out on abortion (a matter of “personal choice”), negative campaigning (she upbraided GOP Chairman Richard N. Bond for attacking Hillary Clinton), unfounded allegations of marital infidelity (“disgusting”) and the press itself (it is biased against her husband because of a “liberal” tilt).
Mrs. Bush addresses the Republican National Convention tonight--a first-ever prime-time convention address by a First Lady. But, like the seasoned political professional she is, she tried to play down expectations for the speech. “It’s not going to be a great speech,” she said. “It’s just sort of a little Mighty Mouse. It’s nothing.”
The speech is clearly designed to bring before the public this comforting figure, this paragon of family values, this warm-hearted matron to assure us that George Bush really is a good and decent man who has been unfairly maligned for trying to do the right thing for his country.
But don’t be surprised if she drops in a few zingers, as she did last week when asked about Democratic nominee Bill Clinton’s “family values.”
“He never denied he had a fling, did he?” she asked cattily. She had a back-of-the-hand slap for Hillary, too. “ I certainly don’t want to be co-President,” Mrs. Bush said sweetly.
There’s little doubt that Mrs. Bush is one of the struggling President’s most powerful assets. Her approval ratings have been running 40 to 50 percentage points ahead of her husband’s in polls this year. And there’s no more dramatic evidence of her perceived value to the President than her appearance on the convention podium tonight.
After four years of demonstrating to the country that she is not Nancy Reagan, the President’s wife tonight is staking out a new identity: Barbara Bush, mother of five, grandmother of 12, college dropout, uncomplaining spouse of 47 years, is not Hillary Clinton.
The strategy is not without risk, notes Ruth Mandel, director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University.
“Barbara Bush has chosen to play the role (of political spouse) in a classically traditional manner. She has played the role to the pattern. Unlike Hillary, she has never presented herself as a woman with a political profile or public image independent of her husband’s,” Mandel said.
Accordingly, her convention appearance represents “a risky decision,” Mandel said. “I think it weakens the President’s image. Can you imagine if Hillary had been given a prime-time speaking role at the convention? There’d have been an uproar. Mrs. Bush has never projected herself as a policy adviser; she has primarily concerned herself with home and family. Why then is she making a prime-time speech at a national political convention?”
The message that the Bush campaign is sending is unmistakable, Mandel said: We’re safe and they aren’t. But giving Mrs. Bush a high-profile political role muddies the message, she said. Mrs. Bush’s immense appeal derives from the fact that she has never appeared to lust for power or play the political game. Now, Mandel said, the White House is “taking advantage of her popularity to reassure Americans that (Bush) is a nice guy.”
When George and Barbara Bush moved from the vice president’s mansion to the White House four years ago, it was widely suggested that she would serve as the President’s conscience on issues from homelessness and AIDS to education and gun control.
It is she who has shown the nation the compassionate side of the first couple, as he has tried to follow in the macho footsteps of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. It was she who cuddled the AIDS babies, read to underprivileged schoolchildren, visited countless hospitals and homeless shelters, while George sent the troops marching off to Panama and Kuwait and killed fish and game with First Buddy Jim Baker.
Beneath this performance, however, is a woman of enormous resolve and political savvy who has propped up her wavering husband at several critical junctures. On these occasions, she has been not so much George Bush’s conscience, as his spine.
Two telling anecdotes from Richard Ben Cramer’s exhaustive new book on the 1988 campaign, “What it Takes,” are illustrative.
After Bush’s embarrassing third-place finish (to religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole) in an Iowa straw poll in the fall of 1987, senior campaign staffers Lee Atwater and Bond were dissecting the loss and deciding what to do next. Barbara wandered into the staff section of Air Force Two and fixed her gaze on Bond.
According to Cramer’s reconstruction, Barbara said: “ ‘So, Rich, when are you going back to Iowa to manage the vice president’s campaign?’ ”
Cramer continues: “Bond jerked in place, for an instant, like a specimen pinned to a lab table. ‘Um . . . right away, Mrs. Bush!’
“ ‘Good!’ said Bar. Her mouth was smiling, but her eyes had Bond’s, as her head tilted back an inch or two. '. . . Because that’s what George and I want.’ ”
Cramer’s second story relates to Bush’s indecision about launching a stinging attack ad against Dole, who was leading the vice president in the days before the crucial New Hampshire primary in early 1988. The spot accused Dole of straddling the fence on tax increases and other key issues. Bush wasn’t sure he wanted to air the ad; it just wasn’t nice. Atwater pressed Bush to hit Dole, to hit him hard. Bush wavered.
Barbara, who had seen the ad, and had seen those of Dole and the others that painted Bush as a wimp, a lap dog of Ronald Reagan, had made her decision. “I don’t think ours is that bad,” she told the staff. That was all the authority they needed. They put the ad on the air, helping Bush sweep the state and launching him toward the White House.
“Mrs. Bush is a very shrewd political animal,” said Lewis L. Gould, a professor of history at the University of Texas-Austin who teaches a course in first ladies. “She is intelligent and can do very well at that game.”
Perhaps the greatest element of that skill is that she does it so discreetly. Her kid gloves seldom leave fingerprints.
She is widely credited with altering the President’s view on banning semiautomatic assault rifles, which her husband, a member of the National Rifle Assn., had felt should remain legal. She is also assumed to be the one who gave former Chief of Staff John H. Sununu the final push out the door last winter, after his government-paid personal travel became a continuing Washington scandal.
Neither Mrs. Bush nor anyone on her staff would confirm her role in these or other policy matters. Former senior White House aide Ed Rogers said her influence on the President was the subject of “endless speculation” among the White House staff and the press corps, but few people know the truth, and those who do don’t talk, he said.
In a May interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mrs. Bush said that she and her husband talk frequently on matters of policy and personnel, but that the discussions are and will remain private.
“If I thought someone was ill serving the President, you may be sure I would tell him. I would. . . . But I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone else. That’s what husbands and wives do. . . . I tell George right in there,” she said, pointing toward their bedroom in the White House living quarters. “Quietly.”
The outlines of Barbara Bush’s life are by now familiar. The third child of an upper-middle-class family, she was reared in Rye, N.Y., a tony suburb overlooking Long Island Sound. Her father, to whom she was devoted, was publisher of McCall’s magazine; he delighted his daughter and her friends by bringing home huge home-sewing catalogues from which Barbara made hundreds of cut-out dolls. They lived in a spacious five-bedroom house on a large wooded lot, attended by a pair of live-in servants.
The chubby and mischievous Barbara had a difficult relationship with her mother, Pauline Robinson Pierce, who was the daughter of an Ohio Supreme Court justice. Mrs. Bush has described her mother as a cold and humorless spendthrift, more devoted to her garden and her antique collection than to her children.
Barbara was the acknowledged ringleader of a group of girls in her prewar suburban paradise. Although well-behaved at school, Barbara could be a cruel tormentor of her contemporaries, as recounted in a new book on the First Lady by Pamela Killian.
Killian quotes childhood friend June Biedler as recounting that before school Barbara would prearrange to freeze out one of the girls on the bus that day.
“She would determine who was speaking to whom when we got on the bus together,” Killian quotes Biedler. “It would be all planned, nobody’s going to talk to June this morning. You’d sit there on the bus with your friends and no one spoke to you. Dreadful feeling.”
Another childhood friend, Posy Clarke, said: “She’d call ahead and say, ‘We’re not going to speak to June this morning.’ Or she’d call June and say, ‘We’re not going to speak to Posy.’ ”
Barbara also aimed her stiletto at her friends’ weaknesses, taunting one for her stammering and bullying others who couldn’t take the teasing.
“We were all pretty afraid of her because she could be sarcastic and mean,” Biedler recalled. “She was clever, never at a loss for what to say--or what not to say.”
After attending public and private schools in Rye through 10th grade, her parents sent her to the private Ashley Hall finishing school in Charleston, S.C., where her manners were honed and she was prepared for college and a life of noblesse oblige.
It was during the Christmas break of her junior year, at a country club dance in Greenwich, Conn., 10 miles from Rye, that she met George Bush, scion of an aristocratic family of bankers and investors. She was swept off her feet by the tall, handsome senior at Phillips Academy, and spent the rest of her abbreviated school career thinking of nothing but George.
“I didn’t like to study very much,” Mrs. Bush recalled in an interview years later. “The truth is, I just wasn’t interested. I was just interested in George.”
She dropped out of Smith College at the beginning of her sophomore year and returned home. Bush by then was a Navy pilot flying combat missions in the Pacific. After being shot down over Chichi Jima, he was rotated home for Christmas leave in 1944. The couple was married Jan. 6, 1945, at the First Presbyterian Church in Rye.
“I married the first man I ever kissed,” Mrs. Bush says.
After mustering out of the service later that year, Bush sped through Yale in 2 1/2 years, then set out for a job arranged by a friend of his father’s in the wilds of West Texas. The Bushes moved into a modest duplex they shared with a mother-daughter prostitute team.
With timely financial help from the Bush family, George prospered in the oil business. In 1949, the growing family moved to California, where they lived in five cities in a single year--Compton, Huntington Park, Bakersfield, Whittier and Ventura. Then on to Midland, Tex., and Houston.
In late 1952, tragedy struck with the fatal illness of their second child, 3-year-old daughter, Robin. Her care and comfort fell to Barbara, because George was preoccupied with a new business venture. Barbara traveled back and forth to New York with the child for unsuccessful treatment for her leukemia. She died two months shy of her 4th birthday. George arrived at the hospital just hours before her death.
The following years brought three more children and, as Mrs. Bush recalled in a 1985 speech, “a period for me of long days and short years, of diapers, runny noses, earaches, more Little League games than you could believe possible, tonsils and those unscheduled races to the hospital emergency room; Sunday school and church, of hours of urging homework, short chubby arms around your neck and sticky kisses and experiencing bumpy moments--not many, but a few--of feeling that I’d never, ever be able to have fun again, and coping with the feeling that George Bush, in his excitement of starting a small company and traveling around the world, was having a lot of fun.”
Barbara Bush never lost that feeling of being the neglected homebody as her husband rose in business and politics, through two terms in the House of Representatives, stints as U.N. ambassador and GOP chairman. She successfully repressed it until 1976, when the couple returned from China, where Bush had served as U.S. envoy. He took up the post of CIA director, a job that required long hours and that shut Barbara almost completely out of his professional life.
She entered a period of near-clinical depression, which she blamed on the women’s movement that left her with deep feelings of inadequacy. “Suddenly, women’s lib had made me feel that my life had been wasted,” she said in 1989 interview.
George urged her to get counseling, but she refused. Brought up to believe that people solve their own problems, she pulled herself out of it with volunteer work and by touring the country showing slides of her adventure in China. She then threw herself into a crusade for literacy, having chosen that endeavor as a safe and politically profitable focus at the time Bush decided to run for President in 1978. He lost the 1980 race, but was chosen by Reagan to be his running mate.
The eight years of Bush’s vice presidency were, for Barbara, a period of endless entertaining and hundreds of public appearances to promote literacy. She seldom spoke out on matters of policy or politics, except for her celebrated remark in 1984 about Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro, to whom Mrs. Bush referred as “that $4-million--I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich.”
She was mortified that she had let slip the mask that had concealed the mean streak that had first emerged in childhood. She immediately apologized to Ferraro and kept her salty tongue in place for years afterward.
But this year, the mask is coming off, the tongue has been loosed. This is Barbara Bush’s last campaign, and, win or lose, she’s going to run it as herself.
She acknowledged in the interview last week that she had come “close” to deciding that the pain and dissembling of politics were no longer worth it to her.
“It’s not too difficult (to endure), but too filthy, and it’s just not fun to run when lies and things, hurtful lies, (are published),” Mrs. Bush said, the years and years of silent suffering etched on her face. “Having said that, I know that considering the alternate choice, that George Bush must be President. . . . But three more months. I can do anything for three months.”
Barbara Bush: Notes and Quotes
Here are some biographical notes on First Lady Barbara Bush, who will speak tonight:
Parents: Pauline and Marvin Pierce. He was president of the company that published McCall’s and Redbook magazines. She was the daughter of an Ohio Supreme Court justice and was a gardener, violin player, antique collector and a prominent civic booster.
Famous distant relative: President Franklin Pierce, who served from 1853 to 1857 and was the only incumbent President who was willing to seek reelection but was denied renomination by his party.
Children: Five survive--George, Jeb, Neil, Marvin and Dorothy. Second-born Robin died at 3 of leukemia.
As an author: Mrs. Bush has written two books, under the byline of her dogs: “C. Fred’s Story: a Dog’s Life” and “Millie’s Story.” She contributed the royalties to charities.
Famous confession: “I married the first man I ever kissed. When I tell this to my children, they just about throw up.”
Candid quote: “People can be so rude about the fact that George looks so young and I look so old. It’s not nice.”
Her trademark: Three-to-five strand artificial pearls.
Favorite cause: Promoting literacy. Once delivering a speech on the effects of illiteracy she said: “I hope I’m scaring you to death. I’m scared. What do I want you to do about it? . . . I’m cheering for teachers. In most cases, they are underpaid and overworked.”
Source: Times wire services