Who is the real Barbara Bush? Exit an enigma Of the woman who charmed the country, we still know little

January 15, 1993|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Staff Writer

Of all the things we know -- or think we know -- about Barbara Bush, a few items leap instantly to mind:

* That she has devoted her life to being a wife and mother and has no regret about her choice to live what some have called a "derivative" life.

* That she's friendly, modest, funny, down-to-earth.

* That she's America's Grandma, a woman who is quite comfortable with looking her age and, unlike her predecessor, Nancy Reagan, is not heavily invested in clothes, makeup and artificially colored hair.

* That she represents the kinder, gentler side of George Bush; that deep down she really is pro-choice, in favor of stricter gun control and more funding for AIDS.

Bottom line: People like Barbara Bush. They liked her from the minute she stepped into the White House. Part of this, of course, stems from the fact that she's the Un-Nancy. After eight years of Nancy with the adoring gaze and over-coiffed hair, Barbara seemed as familiar as an old shoe: comfortable and totally predictable in the way her image fit our needs.

We felt we knew her.

Then last year, a funny thing happened: Stories began appearing that presented Barbara Bush in a contradictory and less flattering light. We were told:

* People who know her are afraid of her. Barbara's own stepmother, Willa Pierce, told Vanity Fair: "I could get in so much trouble if I said something she didn't agree with. Because you know how she is: She knows how she wants to appear in the world."

* That she is not impervious to the contrast between her own matronly appearance and the still-boyish looks of her husband and, privately, she is a critical, tough woman.

* That she controls the press far more tightly and more successfully than Nancy Reagan ever did.

* That she is not as uninterested in White House politics as we have been led to believe. As the New Republic put it: "Mrs. Bush has achieved the extraordinary feat of being perhaps the most political of recent First Ladies and the least criticized, . . . the master politician, who is never questioned on public policy. . . . Barbara plays the Hillary game, but far more cleverly."

To see just how much revisionism has occurred in the Barbara Bush image-making game, consider the leads on the following two stories, both written by the same Washington Post reporter. The first, written in 1989, a few days before George Bush's inauguration, begins, "She is the genuine article, a mother figure about to become a role model."

The second article appeared in 1992, just prior to Mrs. Bush's speech at the Republican Convention in Houston. It begins: "When the First Lady takes the podium Wednesday night at the Republican convention, which Barbara Bush will be speaking?"

The article then gives us two Barbaras to choose between: "the devoted wife, loving mother, down-to-earth grandmother" or "the cagey political partner who will capitalize on her image . . . to keep her man in the White House."

Even the first lady's press secretary for four years, Anna Perez, said recently: "I don't really know Mrs. Bush. I don't know Mrs. Bush at all."

It's an observation that raises some interesting questions -- questions that arrive just as Barbara Bush prepares to exit the White House. Are there two different Barbara Bushes: the FTC orchestrated public one and the real private one? Or have the charmed (by her) press and public created a first lady who, despite evidence to the contrary, we insisted on seeing as a one-dimensional figure?

We knew, for instance, that Barbara was not as casual about her appearance as she seemed.

"Please notice -- hairdo, makeup, designer dress," she told the press early in her husband's term. "Look at me good this week, because it's the only week."

But the president's wife was never one to show up in off-the-rack clothes. She went to the likes of Arnold Scassi and Bill Blass for her wardrobe. And she also used a makeup artist to prepare her for photos.

Which she had every right to do. Who doesn't want to be all they can be? The point is: We may have overlooked some clues that reveal the private Barbara Bush, the one who answered a reporter's question about her husband's alleged infidelity by saying, "Nobody ever asks if I've fooled around."

The press reported it as a joking remark but underneath the laugh there lurks a certain poignancy.

There was poignancy, too, in the way Barbara Bush came to the defense of Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign. When an interviewer began to trash Hillary, Mrs. Bush quickly cut him short, saying: "I'm jealous of Hillary. It's great she got to do all that."

One detected a small note of regret, perhaps, in the voice of a very smart woman who was born into a generation that did not support or foster a woman's accomplishments outside of the home as well as inside.

Two years ago Barbara Bush joked that she didn't know even now what she wants to be when she grows up and she certainly didn't know in 1944 when she dropped out of college to marry George Bush.

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