Something tells me that Barbara Bush would have enjoyed reading the news over the past week — and I don’t mean the glowing tributes to the former first lady. No, some of the rest of the news, about who in the Trump administration is confused about what; about the nerves-of-steel pilot who brought a crippled airliner to safety; about the kerfuffle over infants on the Senate floor. All three episodes involve women of a very different age than Bush, but a similar sensibility: confident and no-nonsense, intolerant of fools and foolishness.
The generational divide is stark between Bush and the three women involved in these stories — U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who holds a position once occupied by Bush’s husband ; Southwest Airlines pilot Tammie Jo Shults, a Navy pilot like the former president; Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an Army veteran who lost both her legs during a war started by Bush’s eldest son.
The horizons for women of Barbara Bush’s time were constrained and derivative. Their assigned role was to care for and support husbands and children; paid work was something that was done out of financial necessity or, perhaps, patriotic duty. In her memoir, Bush described how, “much to my mother’s distress,” she worked at a nuts and bolts factory in the summer of 1943, before heading off to Smith College.
But that stint did not foreshadow any burst of career-mindedness. Bush would soon drop out of Smith — “The truth is, I just wasn’t interested. I was just interested in George” — to devote herself to her husband.
As the late Marjorie Williams wrote in a 1992 Vanity Fair profile, “By 1974, when other women were discovering the wounded, angry sister who had so often shadowed the bouncing figure in the women’s magazines, Barbara could still send this description of her activities to the Smith Alumnae Quarterly: ‘I play tennis, do vol. work and admire George Bush!’ ”
We tend to think of Barbara Bush as formidable to the point of scary, impregnable beneath her triple strand of pearls. So it is telling that Bush’s self-described moment of vulnerability involved the rise of the women’s movement during the 1970s and the implicit judgment she thought it cast on her life choices, helping trigger a depression so intense, she wrote in her memoir, “I felt the urge to drive into a tree or an oncoming car.”
As Bush recalled in a 1989 interview, “Suddenly women’s lib had made me feel that my life had been wasted.”
It wasn’t, of course; anything but. Still, it is impossible to read about Bush’s life without wondering: What if she had been born a half-century later? What could this woman have become? And it was impossible, as the plaudits poured in following Bush’s death on Tuesday, not to imagine Bush cheering on Haley’s cheek, Shults’s steadfastness and Duckworth’s pragmatism.
Can’t you just hear Bush herself in Haley’s brusque retort to White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow’s assertion that “there might have been some momentary confusion” about whether the administration planned new sanctions against Russia?
Haley promptly rejected Kudlow’s suggestion, with its overtones — whether intended or accidental — of you-silly-girl sexism: “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.” Bush might only have omitted the respect part. Like Haley, she knew sexism when she saw it and wasn’t shy about calling it out. “I don’t know how women can vote for someone who said what he said about Megyn Kelly,” Bush told CBS’s Norah O’Donnell in February 2016 about Donald Trump, when Jeb Bush was running against him. “It’s terrible. And we knew what he meant, too.”
Can’t you just imagine Barbara Bush in the pilot’s seat, calmly bringing the plane in for a safe landing? Talk about nerves of steel. This is, after all, the woman who decreed there would be no crying in front of her dying daughter, Robin. As Bush wrote in her memoir: When “poor George had the most dreadful time and could hardly stand to see his daughter get a transfusion,” Barbara herself remained resolute — even if the memory of Robin could bring her to tears decades later.
And can’t you just imagine Bush telling the male senators to grow up and change their fusty rules to accommodate Duckworth and her infant daughter? Bush dressing down Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who fretted, “But what if there are 10 babies on the floor of the Senate?” Or, perhaps, Bush being Bush, which is to say equal opportunity unsparing, tartly instructing Duckworth to get some babysitting help, for goodness’ sake.
Mostly, though, I think Barbara Bush would have applauded this trio — and appreciated how they seized opportunities she never had.
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