On Top of the World


Review of Barbara Bush: Matriarch of a Dynasty

By: Pamela Kilian

Author Bio: Pamela Kilian is a journalist and writer. She has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri. She was an editor for the United Press International, Chicago. She is the assistant managing editor for Scripps Howard News Service.

Was She Truly a Matriarch of a Dynasty?

By: Kate Koeckritz

Notable for being both a first lady as well as a mother and wife, Barbara Bush is compared to Abigail Adams by Pamela Kilian in her book Barbara Bush: Matriarch of a Dynasty. Although centuries apart, both Bush and Adams were wives as well as mothers of presidents. In addition, both of their husbands were men whose presidencies were in the shadow of another, more popular president—Adams with Washington, and Bush with Reagan. Barbara grew up in Westchester County, New York in the 1940s. She is often remembered to the American public as the First Lady who wore fake pearls and looked similarly to Mrs. Claus. One of her main focuses while in D.C. was literacy, due to her son Neil and his dyslexia. Recognizing the importance of the written word, Barbara remarks, “Everything would be better if people could read, write, and understand.”1 Although many see her as a motherly figure instead of a political figure, she was a major driving force in both her husband and son’s political careers and interests.

Barbara was the third of four children to her parents, Marvin and Pauline. Her father worked at the McCall Publishing Company, became president of the firm, then eventually became publisher. Pauline passed on her love of gardening and needlepoint to Barbara. From her father, Barbara received her sense of fun, sharp wit, and love of sports. The family had always known that they were related to Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth president of the United States, and Barbara recalls being ashamed of this fact, for she heard he had been an unsuccessful president. Shortly after meeting George H. W. Bush, Barbara fell in love. When asked about his parents’ first encounter, George W. claims, “It was love at first sight.”2 Her love grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut and his parents were prime examples of the Protestant work ethic; they preached hard work, temperate living, and daily Bible readings. After Barbara graduated from Ashley Hall, a finishing school in the area, she was accepted to Smith College, where she spent more time having fun, writing to George, and playing sports rather than studying. As a result, her grades deeply suffered. She eventually dropped out fall semester of her sophomore year to focus on her upcoming wedding. They married on January 6th, 1945. Shortly after their marriage and the birth of their first born, George, the new family moved to Texas, “to shape [their] lives and bring up [their] kids in a land of fresh challenge and opportunity.”3 The birth of their second child, named after Barbara’s late mother Pauline, brought new happiness for Barbara, but not for long. Little Pauline “Robin” was diagnosed with leukemia, and soon after, died in October, 1953. At the time, the nation-wide question of race and equality was brought into sharp focus by the school desegregation efforts and riots in Little Rock.

When George H. W. was away, Barbara was left to deal with the problems of the children. George W. talks about his mother and her caring for his younger brother, Neil: “Mother worked hard with Neil, disciplining, training, encouraging. She was the one who really spent time making sure that Neil could learn the basics.”4 In 1962, Barbara’s husband decided to run for Chairman of the Harris County Republican Party. Barbara admits that although she can be charming, she can also be straightforward; “I probably lost George hundreds of votes...I’m not only outspoken, I’m honest.”5 George was appointed the coveted spot on the House Ways and Means Committee and Barbara was plunged into activities with wives like herself whose husbands were newly elected. Nixon then asked Bush to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations after he lost the seat in the Senate, and he gladly accepted. After being Ambassador for a little over a year, George decided he wanted a bigger position. From 1979 to 1980, Barbara was on the road almost every day for two years, campaigning for her husband. Her competitive spirit rose up during convention week. Finally, on January 21st, 1981, Reagan and Bush were sworn into office. Barbara visited charities, welcomed Texas students visiting the Capital, met the Republican groups, and was regularly at George’s side for public dinners and speeches. After his time as Vice President, Bush finally decided to run as President. He met a couple road bumps along the way, including a reported affair he had with a female staff member, which all people claimed as fallacy, as well as his admittance of his bigger role in the scandal involving Iran and the arms for the Contras in Nicaragua. Despite these pitfalls, he gained popularity, along with his wife. In one of her speeches, she opens herself to the public: “I have my causes, such as literacy. I have caring friends, such as yourselves. I have five wonderful children, each of whom has married an equally wonderful person, and in turn, given me ten exquisite grandchildren.”6 Barbara successfully avoided most of the controversies of the campaign, and she was ultra-cautious about making a mistake. Her caution paid off, for George was elected the forty-first President of the United States.

She spoke out on subjects that interested her, usually involving women, work, and literacy. She was invited to give a commencement address to a new generation of women at Wellesley College, for which she was questioned of her credentials because of her lack of a college degree. A student expressed her opinion rather candidly: Barbara Bush is “the furthest she can be from the ideals of a progressive, feminist institution where you’re taught to work hard to be recognized for your own contributions.”7 Despite the criticisms, she gave the speech and stood up for the values that had shaped her life—being a loyal wife, loving mother, cheerful homemaker, and volunteer worker. In her speech, she offered the women life advice: “You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend, or a parent.”8 Despite her seemingly short list of achievements, she was very caring, taking extra soap from hotels and giving them to homeless shelters. She was also very active in the Leukemia Society of America. She traveled around the country seeing people involved in helping others, which in turn inspired her to further her efforts.

The Gulf War created an intensity of focus that lacked the usual lightness of the time. The Bushes continued to entertain—Barbara made sure the guests were people that the president could have fun with. Air traffic had fallen dramatically because of fear of terrorist attacks on airplanes. After, Bush and Gorbachev announced an agreement on a new arms control treaty, paving the way for a summit in Moscow. Barbara continued to visit military bases for several months after the war. The 1992 campaign started with devastating riots in Los Angeles, the economy in deep recession, and Bush’s popularity reaching new lows. Barbara learned how to put her husband and his fortunes first. She learned how to control her temper on the trail, though she still could get spiteful when asked a question she did not like. After her husband’s loss, she tried to remain positive: “There is important work to be done and America must always come first. So we will get behind this new president and wish him well.”9 After their life in the White House, they were no longer in the public eye, which Barbara enjoyed immensely. During the election of 2000, there was a limit for their time onstage—knowing how easy it would be to leave the impression that the old Bush presidency was back. George H.W. Bush states, after the election of his first born as President, “We’re staying out of the limelight. I don’t miss it. It’s just a question of the pride of a dad in his son.”10 The Bushes showed that Republicans could be compassionate as well as conservative, and that they have always been surrounded by strong women, sometimes by choice, and sometimes by birth.

Kilian’s thesis is that Barbara Bush’s role as a mother and wife was more important than her role as a social reformer or politician. Kilian provides an abundance of evidence to support this idea--the essence of the book mainly focuses on Barbara’s relationships she created during her life and her impact on other people’s lives. Throughout the chapters, Kilian emphasizes that “she was very supportive of her husband” and that “she wasn’t very comfortable at the beginning” of the campaigns and being in the spotlight.11 The author makes it evident that Barbara was there mainly as a support beam for George, not a separate entity devoted to her own causes. Although she did make a point to serve the citizens of her country at homeless shelters and through advocating for literacy, but mainly she was the strong wife who supported a current President while also raising a future one.

Pamela Kilian, the author of the book, is a journalist who studied at University of Missouri, focusing her main energies on interior design. She was also a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service, and has known George and Barbara Bush for over twenty years, which gives herself credibility, but also leaves room for bias and emotional ties. Kilian is not afraid to criticize Barbara’s tendency to be more “honest than kind,” and to let her temper get the best of her.12 Although Kilian could be subject to bias, she remains neutral, painting an unforgettable portrait of the woman who quietly became an American icon. Originally published in 2002, this book reflects some of the attitudes of the time surrounding both Bush presidencies. Around the time George W. Bush had just gotten into office, national tragedy struck: September 11th, 2001. The fear of terrorism was on the rise, which can explain for the avoidance of the subject in the book, and more focus on the social influences of Barbara and the Bush presidencies. The nation as a whole was interested in the idea of a woman being both the wife and mother of the Presidents, and many thought there was a reason or secret behind this fact. Certainly Barbara must have done something to encourage George W. to run. At the turn of the century, widespread media was growing, and the American public treated the President more as a celebrity, or on screen presence rather than as a political figure. Privacy was becoming an idea of the past for people in positions of power, and the early 2000s was the beginning of this sentiment.

Publisher’s Weekly describes this book as quotations from “newspaper reports and interviews members of the Bush White House staff, presidential scholars and Barbara’s friends to paint a fond, somewhat lackluster portrait of the popular former first lady.”13 There’s nothing genuinely remarkable about Barbara’s life, but Kilian makes sure to add occasional odd tidbits along with basic biographical facts. The review points out that although Barbara has always been well liked, and later in life has seemed rather like America’s grandmother, Kilian maintains that she has a dark side: she suffered from a bout of depression during her husband’s term as head of the CIA, for instance, and she’s fiercely protective of her family.14 Readers may know, for example, that Barbara Pierce grew up in an affluent suburb of New York City, was well adjusted if a trifle sheltered and met her future husband at a country club dance. But they might be surprised to learn that she took an auto mechanics class and, as wife of the then Vice President, occasionally repaired the family cars. Kilian wraps up her workmanlike tale with the election of George W. and some speculation about Barbara’s feeling vindicated for her husband’s defeat. A competently researched and reasonable general account, this title will be popular with fans of the former first lady, even though it fails to break new ground. Another critique claims that this biography merely provides a new perspective of the first lady.15 Given that many seem to know her, this book sheds a new light on the popular woman. This perspective would argue that the main reason for writing this book was for the people of the time and the interests the common citizens had involving the Bushes and their so-called legacy.

Overall, the volume was pretty interesting for a history book. The writer goes into heavy detail about enlightening facts about Barbara’s childhood, young adult life, as well as being First Lady and beyond. Barbara’s perspective is uniquely established through her quotations and of those around her. Much is made of Barbara Bush’s symbolism as a wife and mother, who puts home and family first; her articulation of traditional values and her advocacy of reading. The well-known facts of the Bushes’ affluent background, their wartime romance and their companionable rise through the political ranks are recounted in the personal anecdotes and reminiscences. Kilian’s writing is seamless and flows easily, although she often emphasizes seemingly unimportant details. Most of the time, she continues on course but every so often she goes into unnecessary detail. The overall importance of Barbara’s role is overemphasized. Truly, she was just a woman who fell in love with a man. She did contribute to many non-for-profit organizations and she was a truly caring mother, but she had a quick temper and a sharp tongue, and was not afraid to use it.16 Even she said herself, she may have lost her husband hundreds of votes for her bluntness.

The book lightly touches on the subject of terrorism and its effect on the nation, although it is not one of the main focuses of the book. Because the Gulf War as well as the problems in the Middle East started during George H W Bush’s term, the beginning years of the long conflict can be pinpointed to the first Bush, although many Americans had not started seeing the direct effects until George W. Bush’s presidency. Kilian brushes upon the problems with airlines and national hesitation towards flying because of terrorist attacks, but quickly goes away from the subject.17 Kilian does not recognize the affects of technology once in her book directly, but she does emphasize the old way of communication back when George H. W. was in World War II—writing letters. This, in turn, can imply how much the ways of communication has changed since then, including computers and cell phones. Because of the advancement of technology, communication has adapted far beyond the time of George and Barbara’s first spark of romance. Ever since the published date of the book, technology has made enormous strides in an effort to create a better life for all people.

Although Barbara was not a terribly significant figure in American history, it is interesting to see the opinions of people who witnessed first hand the events in the White House. Being the wife or the mother of the President is vital to the idea of the family unit in America, and Barbara was the second woman in history to have been both.

[1] Kilian, Pamela. Barbara Bush: Matriarch of a Dynasty. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002. Print.10.
[2] Kilian, Pamela. 25.
[3] Kilian, Pamela. 38.
[4] Kilian, Pamela. 57.
[5] Kilian, Pamela. 66.
[6] Kilian, Pamela. 110.
[7] Kilian, Pamela. 147.
[8] Kilian, Pamela. 145.
[9] Kilian, Pamela. 202.
[10] Kilian, Pamela. 213.
[11] Kilian, Pamela. 81.
[12] Kilian, Pamela. 189.
[13] Nonfiction Book Review: Barbara Bush: A Biography by Pamela Kilian, Author St. Martin’s Press PublishersWeekly.com. N.p., 2003. Web. 23 May 2017.
[14] Nonfiction Book Review: Barbara Bush
[15] “Barbara Bush.” Goodreads. N.p., 2010. Web. 25 May 2017.
[16] Kilian, Pamela. 103.
[17] Kilian, Pamela. 85.
[18] “Pamela Reeves Kilian.” Pamela Reeves Kilian (born July 27, 1946), Journalist, Writer | Prabook. Prabook, n.d. Web. 25 May 2017.