I can remember Barbara Bush’s stint as the First Lady well. She was the nation’s First Grandma; wildly popular, much more so than her husband. A lovable plump woman with pure gray hair and the ever present pearl necklace, author of the popular Millie’s Book, written about life in the White House from the perspective of the presidential dog.
Mrs. Bush’s biography on the official White House web site, while obviously a puff piece, isn’t far from the truth, at least in terms of her public image back then, when it says:
Rarely has a First Lady been greeted by the American people and the press with the approbation and warmth accorded to Barbara Pierce Bush. Perhaps this is prompted by the image she calls “everybody’s grandmother.” People are comfortable with her white hair, her warm, relaxed manner, and her keen wit. With characteristic directness, she says people like her because they know “I’m fair and I like children and I adore my husband.”
It was all a myth, of course. My first taste of the real Barbara Bush came from reading Al Franken’s funny and revealing description of his ill-fated encounter with Mrs. Bush during an airline flight, contained in his best selling and famously long-titled book, Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair And Balanced Look At The Right. For anyone who hasn’t read it, suffice it to say the encounter ended with the Bush family matriarch telling Franken several times condescendingly: “I’m through with you.”
When Franken, who had apparently, like me, bought into the Grandma Bush storyline hook, line and sinker, later expressed his shock at the encounter to some Washington insiders, they were amused at his surprise; As Franken describes it, they told him:
“I kept hearing things like: ‘Oh, no, she’s a horrible bitch.’ ‘Omigod, she’s the worst bitch on earth. ‘She can be very charming, but Barbara Bush is the Queen Bitch.’”
And sure enough, here lately, we haven’t been seeing much evidence of the First Grandma, but Queen Bitch Barbara (to borrow from Franken’s source) has certainly been on display. This uglier real-life version of the ex-First Lady first blew into the public’s consciousness shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit when she showed her butt, to be frank, while discussing the hurricane survivors. Here’s how Editor & Publisher described it at the time:
NEW YORK Accompanying her husband, former President George H.W. Bush, on a tour of hurricane relief centers in Houston, Barbara Bush said today, referring to the poor who had lost everything back home and evacuated, “This is working very well for them.”
* * *
In a segment at the top of the show on the surge of evacuees to the Texas city, Barbara Bush said: “Almost everyone I’ve talked to says we’re going to move to Houston.”
Then she added: “What I’m hearing which is sort of scary is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality.
“And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this–this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them.”
Kind of cold-hearted, huh? And in watching her on television there wasn’t a doubt, not one, that this was coming directly from her heart, such as it is. And remember, everyone in the know agrees, as Franken also points out in his book, George W. Bush is his mother’s son: But then that will come as no surprise to anyone who’s closely followed his career, or even just his lackadaisical response to the human tragedy following Katrina.
These are people for whom expressing concern about the less fortunate is nothing more than an unpleasant, but necessary, PR exercise. Barbara Bush just isn’t as good at it as she used to be.
But fortunately, from the Bush family perspective, the mild hubbub generated by these comments quickly died down — until yesterday that is when the Houston Chronicle reported:
Former first lady Barbara Bush donated an undisclosed amount of money to the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund with specific instructions that the money be spent with an educational software company owned by her son Neil.
Okey dokey then: So the First Grandma couldn’t bring herself to donate money to help those lucky ducky hurricane survivors without first making sure that the principal benefit would go to her son.
There you have it: Compassionate conservatism at its finest, or at least its most typical.
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