I finished The Matriarch, a biography of the late First Lady Barbara Bush with a fresh respect for her. But, contrarily, I finished the book with a hugely diminished respect for her predecessor, First Lady Nancy Reagan. I half wish I hadn’t read the book by Susan Page because I can no longer think of Nancy Reagan as a gracious and classy First Lady, ala Jackie Kennedy. Instead the pretty, immaculately groomed Nancy in her Chanel suits seems to have been one of the Mean Girls we all remember from junior high.
And the clearest example of First Lady Reagan’s small-mindedness was what she did when the world’s most famous couple, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, were coming to the White House. Every dignitary in D.C. wanted an invitation to that White House State Dinner.
The second names on the guest list behind the Reagans were, of course, Vice-president George and Barbara Bush. That was until First Lady Nancy was shown the guests’ names, and with a fat magic marker, she blacked both Bushes off the guest list. Nancy Reagan’s pettiness in shutting the Bushes out of this official state dinner with our nation’s greatest ally and the chance to meet the future king and queen of England beggars description.
The Matriarch was our book club’s most recent choice to read and discuss. As it turned out, I was one of the few who had beeen oblivious to the antagonistic relationship between Nancy and Barbara over the eight years their husbands were President and Vice-President. Everyone else in our book club knew about it. That surprised me as well as how much my fellow club members focused on Barbara Bush’s brief contemplation of suicide.
Over Susan Page’s several personal interviews with Barbara in her last years of life, the former First Lady opened up about her times of depression. In one of those dark times, she considered ending her life by driving her car into a brick wall so it would look like an accident.
The only light moment in that discussion was one of our members telling us, “That’s called a Catholic suicide.” Because the Catholic Church says killing yourself is a cardinal sin, to avoid going to hell, good Catholics kill themselves the way Barbara Bush thought about doing it. Accelerate their car into a cement barricade so it will look accidental.
The Matriarch gave all of us in the book club new insights about Barbara Bush. She was not the soft, squishy grandma she often seemed to be. Rather she was tough raising her children, taking on her husband’s enemies, and even holding her own against Nancy Reagan. My favorite Barbara Bush quote in The Matriarch was when a reporter asked her what the difference was between Nancy Reagan and her.
Without missing a beat, she answered, “She’s a size 4 and I’m a size 44.” You got to love a woman with that much moxie!