A Very Bitter Woman

Americans keep odd things up on the mantelpiece, or in the fridge: Dad’s ashes in a biscuit tin or, in Barbara Bush’s case, as her eldest son has just disclosed on national tv, the foetus she miscarried, put in a mason jar and then handed to the teenage George Jr, to take to the hospital. “George, honey, could you hold this while I get the car keys.”  “What is it, mom?”

I interviewed Barbara Bush in 1979, when George Sr was vainly challenging Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination.  This was a time when her image handlers were trying to get round the fact that with her defiant white hair she looked like her husband’s mother. They sold her as “the Silver Fox” – America’s matriarch.

She was horrible. Bitterness seeped out of her like blood from an underdone ribeye. Every banal question elicited a hiss of derision and contempt.

Years later, some time in the middle of George Jr’s first term, maybe 2003, I was driving west across Texas and decided to swing north from Interstate 20 and visit Midland,  where George Jr was partly raised, as was the lovely Laura Welch.

My intention was to visit the crossroads where around 8pm, November 6, 1963, two days after her 17th birthday – yes, she’s a Scorpio —  Laura’s Chevy slammed into a ’62 Corvair driven by her friend, some say erstwhile boyfriend, Michael  Douglas, who died in the collision, thrown from the car, neck broken. Had he stiffed her as her birthday date and when she saw Michael’s Corvair – new model, novel in contour —  crossing her path on the Texan plain,  treeless back then —  she’d put the pedal to the metal? Chevys in those days were fairly well built and the Corvair a lighter car. Would she have known it was him? The headlights on the Corvair were in a novel configuration, but that’s a stretch. Maybe she was gabbing to her 17-old girl friend in the passenger seat. Still, Michael was part of a two-car cavalcade, with his dad in a car right behind him. That’s a lot of headlight power coming at a 90 degree angle that Laura missed as she shot across the Stop sign.

After paying homage, I went off down to the Midland public library where I thought Laura had once worked. A Texan friend of mine had murmured to me that in her single days Laura “had cut a wide swath through Texas” and I thought I might pick up some gossip from the librarians. The Midland library had two vast sections: “geology” – filled with maps and data pertaining to that wondrous source of so many fortunes, the oil-rich  Permian basin. The other big section was “Genealogy”, whither the new oil millionaires went to prove ancient lineage and, in the case of the women, to seek evidence  that they were eligible to be a Daughter of the American Revolution.

“Didn’t the First Lady work here?” I asked one of the old battle axes. (Actually, no. The libraries she served were in Houston and Austin.) There was a short silence, and then, in a contemptuous drawl, she called out to her colleague, “He’s asking about the Welch girl.”

I found a small room devoted to press cuttings and memorabilia about the Bush clan. There was a color photo from the early 1950s which told all. It showed George Sr and Barbara at the Midland/Odessa  airstrip, greeting Bush’s father, US Senator Prescott Bush and his wife Dorothy. The senator was dressed in formal black suiting and homburg hat, his wife arrayed with matching formality. His son had a cheapo red slicker. Barbara, unsmiling, looked like someone in a photo by Walker Evans of the Okies fleeing west from the Dustbowl.

I remembered what one of the Bush cousins had told me, back in Massachusetts.  “We always looked on George as the complete dud of the family. He went to Texas, he never found oil, he stuck Barbara in a trailer park and then gallivanted across the state.”  Her daughter Robin died of leukaemia at the age of 4. George Sr spent more and more time on the road, in Mexico and regions south. Her hair turned white.

This is the furious woman who handed the foetus to young George. If George Sr hadn’t been on the road she would probably have thrown the jar at him.

George Jr, by the time he met Laura, was a complete mess, coked up, a heavy drinker. Laura lived at the other end of the Austin condo. Somehow she detected promise and three months later, one day after her 31st  birthday, one day before the anniversary of the terminal encounter with Michael Douglas, they married. George was 31 too.  “What do you do? ” Barbara asked Laura when George introduced them. “I read and I smoke,” Laura famously replied. KO for the Welch girl!

I saw Barbara on the tv on October 30 of this year, part of a full turn-out by the Bush clan at Arlington stadium for the third game in World Series, the only one the Texas Rangers managed to win, as they went down to defeat by the San Francisco Giants. Barbara looked as bitter as ever, stabbing away at a crossword. Laura seemed bored. George Jr was happy enough. What a family!  Brendan Gill, the great New Yorker writer, told me he’d once spent the night in the Bush manse in Kennebunkport, Maine. Sleepless, he descended from his bedroom in search of reading matter. The only volume in the house he could lay hands on was The Fart Book.  A tacky family, except for the Welch girl.

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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com.

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