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BOOK REVIEW / MEMOIRS : When Life Was Kinder, Gentler : BARBARA BUSH <i> by Barbara Bush</i> ; Scribner’s $25, 575 pages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s hard not to like Barbara Bush. She’s a little old-fashioned, but she’s got class. She’s like your great aunt who makes you straighten your skirt, pull it down over your knees, asks you to fold your hands on your lap and cross your ankles--then tells you a dirty joke.

Barbara Bush’s language and references in her memoir will take you back to a kinder and gentler time and place, sort of like a finishing school in the late ‘40s and ‘50s. She uses expressions I haven’t heard since I watched my last Andy Hardy movie: “Michael Jackson “wears the darndest clothes.” “My dad . . . was the fairest man I knew until I met George Bush.” (But I was stumped when she referred to Desert Storm as “the darndest war.” What does that mean exactly?)

There’s a certain quaintness, comfort in such language, I imagine, for her target audience--the quiet, conservative, churchgoing American woman over 50 who minds swearing but doesn’t mind a few martinis after a round of golf at the country club. Much of the time she sounds like Lawrence Welk, everybody and everything being “wunnerful, wunnerful, wunnerful”; or if not wunnerful, then lovely, sweet and charming, the literary equivalent of a polka. Bush admits she’s no writer, but she deserved a little more careful editing, or at least a thesaurus.

I’m not the first reviewer to observe that the word nice appears more than 45 times beyond page 196 to describe people as varied as Hosni Mubarak; George Wallace; Chief Justice Warren Burger; Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his wife, Sally; Olivia Newton-John; former Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu and his wife, Sachiyo; Deborah Norville; Sidney Poitier; Richard Gere and George Bush.

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Bush’s telling of her earliest years is the weakest part of the book. You can feel her grasping for memories, for colorful details to bring the narrative to life. There’s just not much to draw on as she describes growing up in Rye, N.Y., in an upper-middle-class family during the Depression.

“My memories of that lovely little house are only good ones. . . . The best food in the world came out of our kitchen. I don’t remember what Mother cooked, but she knew good food and trained the helpers.”

Her world isn’t perfect, though. She marries her prince charming, and the two young people head off to the oil boom in Texas, to miserable heat and lousy housing, far away from the manicured Northeast. Her mother is killed in a car accident in 1949, and she soon gives birth to a daughter, Robin, who will die of leukemia before her fourth birthday.

Bush quotes a letter from her husband to his mother--written not long after Robin’s death--that contains some of the most moving writing I’ve read anywhere about the death of a child. “There is about our house a need. . . . We need a doll house to stand firm against our forts and . . . baseball cards. . . . We need someone who’s afraid of frogs. . . . We need a little one who can kiss without leaving egg or jam or gum. We need a girl.”

Bush’s descriptions of life once she and her husband hit Washington, starting in the late ‘60s, become much livelier, a tad less cloying. We get the distaff side of Washington political life as she and George Bush go house-hunting, join various clubs and make their way through the complex social network of the capital.

She devotes only one page to a serious depression she suffered: “Night after night George held me weeping in his arms. . . . Sometimes the pain was so great, I felt the urge to drive into a tree or an oncoming car.” He tells her to get help, which she refuses to do. The depression lifts, and in the book she refers to it only one more time.

She has positive things to say about nearly everyone, even the occasional Democrat. Bush mentions how then-President Richard Nixon made no small talk and seemed difficult to like. She doesn’t address the anti-war movement then sweeping the country or question whether U.S. policy was wise. Then it’s on to George Bush’s stints at the United Nations and the CIA, in China and the White House.

It’s fun reading her takes on Al Gore: He doesn’t “do funerals,” he’s a “demagogue.” She meets then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton at a literacy conference, where he proves to be “a star”; he has no chance at the presidency, she later thinks. “If it comes to politics and you want to know who is going to win, ask me. Then go the other way!” she warmly quips.

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She clearly states her stand on abortion: Personally opposed to abortion, she believes it should be a woman’s choice.

Bush reserves her wrath for the press. She takes the press’s attacks on partisan political issues personally.

“And the press. I honestly believe that most of them wanted Bill Clinton to win (the presidency). He was one of them--baby boomers. . . .”

Aside from her tart words about the press, there’s so much sweetness and light in the memoir that it comes as a shock when George Bush says to his wife one day: “Every day is ugly in my life.”

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Wait till we get his version of things.


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