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A former first lady details a political life

By Marilyn Gardner. Marilyn Gardner is on the Monitor staff. / October 19, 1994



NEARLY two years after she and her husband left the White House for the relative anonymity of post-presidential life in Houston, Barbara Bush remains one of the most beloved first ladies. With her halo of white hair, her maternal air, her self-deprecating humor and unpretentious style, Bush exemplifies the quintessential ``good wife'' and ``good mother'' of a certain era.

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As such, her perspective on a long married lifetime in politics - a fishbowl she has endured with grace and good humor - is potentially of considerable interest to readers of ``Barbara Bush: A Memoir.'' Written by Bush herself, the book offers a generally upbeat self-portrait, delivered without artifice.

Barbara Pierce was just 16 when she met George Bush at a Christmas dance and only 19 when she dropped out of Smith College in 1945 to marry him. After he graduated from Yale, the couple settled in west Texas, where he worked in oil fields and she cared for their growing family. Ever the devoted mother, she began honing skills as a political wife when her husband entered Texas politics.

As his career progressed - United States senator, United Nations ambassador, US envoy in China, vice president, president - she filled diaries with accounts of their lives. From her first blow-dry hairdo to bicycling in Beijing, from menus for state dinners to meetings with world leaders, she revels in details.

But simply transferring diary entries to a memoir can leave a reader longing for fewer anecdotes and more reflection. ``In a life of privilege there are lots of tears,'' Bush writes. When she was 24, her mother was killed in an automobile accident. Four years later, the Bushes' young daughter Robin died. Yet Bush offers only one paragraph about her mother's death.

She does include personal revelations: her disagreement with her husband about abortion and gun control, her skepticism about Anita Hill, her depression for six months in the 1970s.

She castigates the press for its harsh treatment of her husband during the 1992 campaign. And she laments media indifference to her own campaign against illiteracy: ``I worked so hard all year long for literacy and got little or no press coverage, and then I would do something frivolous like going up in a cherry picker [to put the star on top of the national Christmas tree] and my picture is seen around the world.''

This memoir doubles as a paean to the huge cast of people who helped make George Bush's career possible. And therein lies one of its fundamental flaws. A reader quickly gets bogged down in lists of friends, who are often described in superlatives. The 31-page index contains more than 1,600 names. A book two-thirds as long could have been twice as interesting.

From her mother, Barbara Bush learned a ``most important lesson'' that became an inadvertent legacy. ``You have two choices in life: You can like what you do, or you can dislike it. I have chosen to like it,'' she writes. That philosophy shines through this overlong memoir, partially redeeming its faults as it portrays a woman who has lived graciously in the shadow of the man she calls ``my hero, George Bush.''