I first met Barbara Bush in the living room of their Houston home. “What are you doing here?” was her greeting.
I explained I was press secretary to her daughter-in-law Laura Bush as part of her son’s campaign to win the Republican presidential nomination.
“Well, you better not break anything,” she ordered.
Easier said than done. Anyone who’s ever overseen the setup for a network television interview knows it requires much moving of furniture so the interviewer and interviewees face each other in the most awkward, most forced-looking arrangement.
As if they are to have a staring contest. Most important, it seems, is that the distant background, of all things, must look pretty.
Worse, most every horizontal surface in the senior Mrs. Bush’s living room was festooned with small crystal figurines like four-inch ballerinas precariously perched on glass toes.
The ABC crew had wisely sought permission to move each chair and couch. No one dared ask about the figurines.
The point of the interview with Barbara and Laura Bush was to talk about their son and husband as a human, not a politician trying to positively introduce himself to a curious country as an aspiring president in the fall of 1999.
On the flight down from Austin, Laura Bush and I had gone over the most likely questions for the women from Cokie Roberts and suggested answers, including George W’s past drinking habits. I followed colleagues’ advice to attempt no coaching of Barbara Bush.
The former First Lady entered the room with the future First Lady and was the friendliest hostess you could imagine, introducing herself to each crew member by handshake and adding as an apparent afterthought, “You’ll put everything back where it was, right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” came the chorus.
The interview was long but went well. Of course, the drinking question came up. In short, Laura Bush answered it smoothly and truthfully. Her husband had recognized the problem himself and had quit cold turkey on their anniversary years ago.
I breathed a sigh of relief as Cokie moved to the next question. But Barbara Bush interrupted. “I never thought George was an alcoholic, did you?”
Laura Bush just nodded. And we moved on.
Even when Barbara Bush was not present, she exerted an oversized family influence. Take political manners, for instance. She taught Laura Bush never to be late. You can’t keep people waiting to ask for their vote.
As a result, in nearly two years of separate campaigning, we were never late. At first, as requested, the Texas Rangers security detail and then the Secret Service would deliver us to the site five minutes early so Mrs. Bush could see the door. Then we’d drive around the block until the precise minute.
As we flew cross-country from small cities to big ones and back to small ones, an important task of mine as the charter took off was to hand Laura Bush a list of names and addresses for every volunteer who’d helped us at that stop. As we flew to the next appearance, Laura Bush would hand-write and address thank-you notes to each, as her mother-in-law had for many years.
Barbara Bush and her first child George were especially close. Even in her absence he would introduce himself to crowds as “Barbara Bush’s son” to loud ovations. I remember Barbara Bush describing how she overcame a deep depression when their second child Robin died of leukemia at three. Through an open window she overheard little George explaining to a friend he couldn’t play that afternoon because he had to take care of his sad mother.
In offstage conversations before rallies Barbara and her husband were relaxed chatting partners with everyone around. The 41st president clearly enjoyed watching his son follow in his footsteps and simply sharing campaign stories. In New Hampshire one Saturday he told me he had learned he would lose the 1992 race to Bill Clinton two weeks before the election.
How did you get up every morning? I asked.
Well, he said, it was my job. And in politics you never know what might happen. Barbara Bush was friendly but more focussed. As their stage cue neared, she silently touched her husband’s arm to be ready. And he obeyed.
As for that ABC interview, I do not remember much else except one awful moment. As the cameras rolled, I peeked between two crew members. My butt nudged a tiny tea table, causing the most horrifying sound imaginable: A crystal figurine toppling over.
All nearby eyes, including mine, turned in shock. The little ballerina lay on her side.
Unbroken, like the powerful memory of Barbara Bush and her spirit many years later.