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Barbara Bush: The Matriarch

Mrs. Bush reads "Brown Bear, Brown Bear" to students of the Ferguson-Florissant School District, in Florissant, Missouri in 1991.
George Bush Presidential Library and Library
Mrs. Bush reads "Brown Bear, Brown Bear" to students of the Ferguson-Florissant School District, in Florissant, Missouri in 1991.

With guest host Todd Zwillich.

Barbara Bush was one of only two women to be a wife and mother of American presidents. Abigail Adams preceded her in this, though Adams didn’t live to see her son assume the nation’s highest office.

For a new biography of the late first lady, “The Matriarch,” journalist Susan Page talked with more than 100 people who knew her. Page interviewed Bush herself five times in her final months of life. The sixth interview never took place. In April 2018, Bush died at age 92 of complications from heart and lung disease.

Page was also given access to Bush’s diaries, which Bush began keeping in 1948. From them, Page gained insights into how the loss of Bush’s first daughter, Robin, helped shape her position on abortion and perhaps sharpened some of Bush’s famous edges as well as softened her to the suffering of others.

While 3-year-old Robin was being treated for leukemia at a New York hospital, with her mother at her side almost constantly, “Barbara Bush became part of the hospital’s community of parents, an involuntary club bound by pain and hope. ‘We understood each other,’ she said. The journey to Texas had broadened Barbara’s horizons from her days of growing up in affluent Rye and attending boarding school at Ashley Hall, in South Carolina.

The long days in the hospital ward were eye-opening in a whole new dimension,” Page writes in “The Matriarch.”

Most Americans know the broad outlines of Bush’s public life. She was married to one president, George H.W. Bush, for 73 years. She was the mother of our 43nd president, George W. Bush, and former presidential candidate and ex-Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Page fills in the gaps.

As another biographer of first ladies, Barbara A. Perry, notes in her review of “The Matriarch”:

Bush was more than an acid-tongued truth-teller or white-haired grandmotherly figure. From HIV/AIDS to Cold War diplomacy to the 2003 Iraq invasion to political score-keeping to character-judging, the first lady held forth with her husband, sons, senior government officials and foreign dignitaries. Like the arc of her life itself, she created a bridge for first ladies that reached from traditional feminine pursuits to modern feminism. This definitive biography is a welcome contribution to our understanding of the complex role of presidential spouses.

Susan Page, long-time Washington bureau chief of USA Today, has covered six administrations. She joins us to share her insights into one of America’s most influential political families and the woman who presided over it.

Produced by Denise Couture. Text by Denise Couture.


Susan Page, Washington bureau chief, USA Today; @SusanPage

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