Susan Page, Washington Bureau Chief of USA Today, speaks about her book The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty.
Susan Page, author of The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty, received the former first lady's permission to read her diaries. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Barbara Bush might have hated the word “dynasty,” but it aptly describes the influence her family has had on the past 40 years of American politics.

Longtime journalist Susan Page, author of The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty, said as much to a crowd of nearly 200 gathered Sunday night at Trinity University for the San Antonio Book Festival’s Get Lit Author Series.

Page, currently Washington Bureau chief for USA Today, was joined on the Chapman Hall stage by moderator Karen Tumulty, a native San Antonian and also a noted journalist.

Lending perspective to the Bush family matriarch’s influence, Page noted that not even Abigail Adams — also wife of one president and mother to another — has had such an influence on the White House, as Adams died six years before her son John Quincy Adams took office in 1825. “Barbara Bush is the only person in American history who has had such an intimate relationship with two presidents,” Page said, “and a vocal one.”

Though she had an “image as America’s grandmother,” Page said, Bush was actually “a very fierce woman,” who notably disagreed with son George W. Bush over the Iraq war, telling him that he was letting the wrong people sway his judgment, Page said.

Bush also made headlines recently, a year after her death at age 92, because of comments about the current president’s negative effect on her health. Her dislike of Donald J. Trump dates back as early as 1990, Page told the crowd, when a diary entry described Trump as “a symbol of the greed of the 1980s.” Notably, Page said by February 2018 Bush no longer considered herself a Republican.

Such intimate knowledge of Bush’s diaries was not easily given. “Do not even ask to see my diaries,” Page said Bush told her on the occasion of their first interview. Page also received no assurances of subsequent interviews, so she packed in as many questions as she could. Bush agreed to a second interview, then a third.

In total, Page would conduct five interviews with Bush, which became more like conversations, Page said. A scheduled sixth interview never took place, because of Bush’s fall that precipitated her last hospital stay and death in April 2018.

The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty by Susan Page.

At the end of the fifth interview, however, Bush finally granted Page full access to the personal diaries she had kept since 1948, which no one other than George H.W. Bush biographer Jon Meacham had seen previously.

“She knew that was the last time we were going to see each other,” Page said, and she granted permission because “she felt she had a story to tell,” and “letting me read her diaries was a way to continue the conversation.”

Page reveals details of Bush’s personal life as well as her political life. Bush’s middle name, Pierce, derives from yet another American president. “Yes, she is a descendant of Franklin Pierce, one of our worst presidents ever,” Page exclaimed, answering a query from the audience.

But the death of Bush’s daughter Robin at age 3, from leukemia, was the defining moment of Bush’s life, Page said.

“It took me a long time to understand that,” Page said.

Bush still kept a pastel portrait of Robin, given to her by a relative after the tragedy, in the living room where the two women held their conversations for the book, and Bush would tear up when they spoke of her.

Robin would even influence Bush’s thoughts on abortion, which became a hot-button issue during her husband’s presidential runs in the 1980s. She knew she’d be asked, and wanted to have an answer, Page said.

A four-page memo tucked into the diaries reveals her deliberative concern – and a conclusion that might startle both sides of the debate: Bush wrote that she felt Robin’s soul enter her body at birth, not at conception, and felt it leave her body the moment the 3-year-old died. Therefore, the question is “not a presidential issue,” Page said Bush concluded, and not one for a non-elected potential first lady to speak about. Bush kept silent on the matter throughout her public life but “never wavered” from her position, Page said.

Living through Robin’s death, and other early and midlife personal trials, gave her the strength she portrayed throughout her life, despite enduring “more pain than people knew,” Page said.

After her health scare in 2016, blamed in part on the abuse the eventual winner of the Republican nomination had heaped on her son Jeb during the campaign, Jeb told her, “We can’t worry about this all the time. You have to let it go. We’re a strong country, we’ll get through this,” Page said.

That future is partly in the hands of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House for the 116th Congress and Page’s next subject for a forthcoming biography.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...