The media is currently awash with news of Barbara Bush’s passing. Politicians, pundits, friends, and family are heralding the wife of George H.W. Bush — 41st President of the United States — as a woman of grace and wit. She was a proud mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. She was a devoted friend and a charitable giver. She promoted literacy in the 80’s and supported women’s rights, as exemplified by a particularly surprising comment during her 1990 appearance at Wellesley College:
“Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse. I wish him well.”
Certainly, the philanthropist will be exhaustively eulogized over the next few days. Much will be spoken of her time in recent years as well as her tenure as First Lady. What I find especially profound, however, is her poise and elegance in the in-between — specifically, in the aftermath of her husband’s crushing 1992 loss to Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. Her refinement and composure in the wake of that shortfall stand as a stark contrast to the acidic, belligerent nature of the First Lady who replaced her, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mrs. Bush imagined a day when a woman would indeed become President; but her vision was one of hope, not power-lust or egocentrism. The same cannot be said of the former senator from New York.
Less than two years after H.W.’s expulsion from the Oval Office, in support of her newly released, self-titled memoir, the Bush matriarch appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live to discuss family and friends, her 4-year White House residency, and life onward. Given her husband’s defeat, she might have conveyed bitter feelings about the election or his opposition. Rather, she was a picture of class, voicing gratitude for her treasured time as First Lady:
“I told George this on the phone…Last night before I went to bed, he called. I awakened Monday morning in New York City…and I looked…and a lot of things happened… the Pope…Arafat met with (Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin…a lot of things happened. And I sat and watched the news. Darling Jessica Tandy died, and Hume [Cronyn], I thought about…I knew every single person and place that was on that television set, thanks to George Bush…Every single person knew me and I knew [them]. I told George, I said, ‘It really struck me how really great a life you’ve given me.'”
One can hardly imagine Hillary Clinton having anything nice to say, had her husband fallen by the political wayside after his first presidential term. At present time — a year and a half after her failure in the 2016 election — she has made a veritable career of tastelessly spouting rancor, continuing to heave incendiary insults not only at the foe who bested her, but his supporters as well. Speaking at an Indian conference in March, Clinton said of Trump and the voters who elected him, “His whole campaign…was looking backward. You know, you didn’t like black people getting rights, you don’t like women getting jobs.”
In 1994, Larry King asked Mrs. Bush about such nastiness in the political sphere — “the ugly part of politics” — with regard to her and George H.W.’s White House exit in lieu of re-election. She had no vitriol to offer:
“I love people. I really loved living in the White House, but I don’t miss it at all. I miss the people…I loved everyone — from the maintenance man, to the janitor, to the plumbers, to the florists, to the ushers, to the butlers, and all the rest of them. I loved every one of those 93 people and, I think, knew them.”
It seems doubtful Hillary Clinton was acutely and amiably aware of each and every staffer during her stay at the White House, even after twice the Bushes’ occupancy. Moreover, Clinton appears acridly determined to remain in the arena of attempted dominion and governance, no matter how many leaders on her own side wish for her to leave.
To Barbara Bush, life was about more than sought power. Given her affection for those at the White House, King queried, “Don’t you miss what you love?” “No,” Bush explained, “because I’ve got more. We’re having the best time you’ve ever known.”
Even concerning her sons’ gubernatorial campaigns at the time — George W. in Texas and Jeb in Florida — she had a kind attitude toward their opponents. King inquired, “Are you angry at Governor (Ann) Richards and Governor (Lawton) Chiles?” “No, no. I want the best man to win,” she insisted, adding good-naturedly, “And we know who that is.”
After Hillary’s presidential upset, she released a book acerbically blaming the debacle on virtually everyone but herself. Barbara Bush had an altogether different disposition with respect to life after politics: she was optimistic and excited about the next chapter, which would involve helping those in need.
“What was the least thing about the White House you liked?” King questioned. “That’d be very hard for me to say,” Bush replied. “I’m not a negative person. I loved the White House. I loved the people who worked there. I loved the life. I loved the fact that every day, you could get up and do something that helped other people. But the marvelous part is, that does not stop after you leave the White House. It turns out that George and I are both serving on hospital boards, and we can raise money…We’re going to go off at the end of this (book) tour to a Central American country and take food and supplies.”
George W. Bush’s mother was a caring and grateful woman. Not just at the end of her life; but in the midst of it. Hillary Clinton could learn a lot from her fellow former First Lady. Chances are, she won’t. Either way, America was blessed by such a genial and gracious lady.
As for writing Barbara Bush: A Memoir, she told King:
“I really didn’t plan to write a book. But three publishers came to me at the White House after George lost and said, ‘We would like to publish your book.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t have a book.’ And they said, ‘It’s a well-known fact that you have kept diaries.’ And then they offered me a sum I couldn’t say no to.
“It was very nice, and…it turned out to be the best thing that could’ve happened to me…because I always knew that I was lucky and life had been good to me. But I really remembered again how really good it had been.”