"The Matriarch": New biography examines how Barbara Bush overcame tragedy, depression, thoughts of suicide

Barbara Bush biographer Susan Page
Barbara Bush biographer Susan Page 06:12

A new biography offers an unprecedented look at the life of one of America's most influential women: Barbara Bush, the only woman in U.S. history to advise both a husband and son during their presidencies. She remained one of America's most admired women, despite being largely out of the public eye for years before her death in 2018.

Her life and role in American history are chronicled in "The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty," by USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page.

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Twelve Books

Appearing on "CBS This Morning" Monday, Page talked about whether George H. W. Bush would have become president if he hadn't married Barbara Pierce. She'd put the question to many of the people she interviewed, and found a generational divide. 

"People who were in the Bushes' generation generally said yes, he would have become president regardless," she said. "But the younger you got, the more astonishing people thought the question was, because they were such partners. And the word people kept using was indispensable, that they were each indispensable to the other.

"I asked the Bushes separately that question, and Barbara Bush said immediately 'Absolutely. He was destined to do all the things he did.' Then I asked George Bush, he thought about it for a minute and he said, 'Yes, I think I would have become president.' I think they are both wrong about that! I think this was a partnership, the likes of which we rarely see in life."

The book opens with a tragedy, the death of the couple's first daughter, Robin, who was just 3 years old when she died of leukemia in 1953. Originally, Page said, she was planning to open the book with the 1988 election that put George H.W. Bush in the White House. "And I realized that was all wrong, that that was not the defining moment of her life. The defining moment of her life, or one of the most defining moments, was the death of Robin. It shaped so many of her moods going forward. It changed for one thing her own relationship, because she was the strong one during Robin's illness, [and] he was the strong one in the aftermath of the illness. That was a pattern they repeated through decades that followed.

"Even when it came to her activism on AIDS, that related to what she saw of the stigma surrounding kids with leukemia that her daughter was suffering from."

Page also writes of the depression that Barbara Bush suffered in the 1970s: "This was something that the only person she confided in [at the time] was her husband. They'd come back from China, he'd taken over as head of the CIA, all of a sudden she had been such an integral part of his life, and now he could not share CIA secrets with her because, she said, she couldn't keep a secret! She was also going through menopause, and there had been other factors as well.

"She told me she would find herself so depressed that she wanted to kill herself, that she thought about plowing her car into a tree or into the path of an oncoming car, and that she would have to pull off the road and wait for that impulse to pass. After about six months, this depression lifted. One thing she did was volunteer at a hospice, and she thinks that was helpful in her getting through this," Page said.

"She told me she should have gone to a doctor, she should have gotten treatment, there's treatment for depression, and that she would urge other people to [do so]. But it affected how she felt about people who suffer from depression. She didn't seem judgmental about it because she understood it in her own life what it had been."

Co-host John Dickerson inquired about the stoicism that women of her generation were expected to have, and how that may have made her depression worse.

"One thing that happened during this depression, to a small degree, she questioned the choices she'd made in life," said Page. "Now, this was a time of the rise of feminism. Women had all kinds of options and opportunities that they hadn't had when she was growing up. And she wondered if her life had real meaning, if she'd made a big difference.

"One of her sons, Neil, told me – they talked about it once – he couldn't believe she felt that way given all that she'd done."

Page had rare access to the former first lady's diaries, and wrote about her relationship with her mother, who could slight Barbara in favor of her sister.

"Her mother would often make comments about her weight,' Page said. "And Barbara Bush was in fact sensitive about her weight for the rest of her life.  When reading her diaries, often the first thing she noticed about a woman was whether she was slender or not. Clearly this was something on her mind. It's a signature of hers, that she would make fun of herself, and in part … she thought she wasn't pretty, although she was in fact a very handsome woman."

Barbara Bush, who died last April at age 92, had told Page she didn't like "The Matriarch" as the title for the book, nor did she care for the word "dynasty." "I said at the end of our first interview, 'So, what would you call the book?' She said, 'The Fat Lady Sings Again.'"

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.