Mrs. Bush offers more fluff than insight


A 10-year-old Barbara Pierce walked down the streets of Rye, N.Y., eating an entire can of marshmallow fluff with her fingers. As an embarrassed young Barbara learned, too much sticky sweetness can leave one feeling sick in the end.

While few would have expected "Barbara Bush: A Memoir" to approach the sass and bitterness of, say, Nancy Reagan's "My Turn," most would likely expect to come away from the book with a greater insight into the author.

But this book has little more substance than the marshmallow fluff of Mrs. Bush's youth.

The former first lady covers the first 16 years of her life in a scant 11 pages. Then came George. There's nothing new in her retelling of their meeting at a dance and their courtship, although some memories of their just-married life (sharing a public bathroom with women of "questionable occupations") are amusing, but few.

For the woman who has been called the most approachable first lady in recent history, her apparent lack of candor is a surprise.

Even when she deals with the heartbreak of losing nearly 4-year-old daughter Robin in 1953, the reader can only guess at Mrs. Bush's pain. She does, however, share a poignant letter vTC husband George wrote to his mother afterward, speaking of having a family with four boys: "We need some soft blond hair to offset those crew cuts. We need a doll house to stand firm against our forts and rackets and thousand baseball cards. . . . We need a girl."

Too often, Mrs. Bush misses an opportunity to tell what it is like to have a front-row seat at the world political theater. One example is the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Since President Bush had been ambassador to China some years earlier, one would have expected Mrs. Bush to offer more insight into the 1989 violent suppression of the pro-democracy demonstrators than this: "My first luncheon for them [the ladies of the Senate] was June 5, just as China was in turmoil over the brutal put-down of protests in Tiananmen Square. We were very upset over the suffering on a personal level, and officially, it was a huge concern for George. A day with my friends was just what the doctor ordered."

In contrast, Mrs. Bush's diary entry tells what it was like having advance knowledge of the United States' Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf:

"January 16 -- For the last twelve hours I have known something so dreadful that I can't even imagine it. I have the feeling that I'd like to go to bed and pull the covers over my head and stay there for six weeks, and then peek out and see if it is all over. If it isn't, I'd like to crawl under again. . . . George told me last night that they decided it would start tonight. God knows they have given Saddam every chance."

Much has been said about the fact that Mrs. Bush spelled out her views on abortion in this book -- views that differ from her husband's. What is remarkable is that she spelled out her opinion so forcefully: "It should be allowed in the first trimester only. Abortion is not a presidential matter. Education is the answer. Morals cannot be legislated." Only rarely does the reader feel that Mrs. Bush is pulling no punches; this is one of those times.

She takes mild swipes at the media (with particular venom for Jane Pauley, Dan Rather and Judy Woodruff). She gives the reader glimpses of notoriously difficult Raisa Gorbachev and playful Boris Yeltsin (she had a running joke with the latter about playing footsie under the table at dinners), but most of the people Mrs. Bush talks about are described as merely "lovely," "beautiful," "talented" or a wonderful friend. Rarely does her narrative give substance to her liberally sprinkled adjectives.

Mrs. Bush speaks of the betrayal she and her husband felt during the 1992 presidential race, when independent candidate Ross Perot spirited away Bush votes, and her firm conviction that a lesser man now lives in the White House.

She shows the bittersweet joy she felt at returning to Houston to begin her post-White House life with George. And -- after a whirlwind of diary entries describing White House life -- the reader is left feeling that she deserves a nice, long rest.

Flashes of humor are sprinkled through this book, but Mrs. Bush more often gives the impression that she is carefully couching her words, ever mindful that she has two sons (Jeb and George W.) running for governor at this time (Florida and Texas, respectively).

Maybe she should have waited until she could be more forthcoming.


Title: "Barbara Bush: A Memoir"

Author: Barbara Bush

Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons

Length, price: 575 pages, $25

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