barbara bush
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None of us are perfect parents and none of us have perfect kids. We can’t take credit for all their successes and we generally can’t be blamed for all their failures. But we do play a large role is shaping our children, and we can screw them up pretty good if we’re not careful. George W. Bush was screwed up by his parents. Some of it wasn’t anything they could control. It’s not easy to be the grandson of a senator and the son of a president, especially if you aren’t blessed at birth with the same types of skills that made them successful in business and politics. Many of us in the same situation would follow an initial path similar to Dubya’s: being the class clown, not trying too hard lest we fail, taking the easy road and riding on our privilege. I’ve never blamed George W. for being the way he is, only for having the lack of judgment and humility to realize that he wasn’t suited to a life of public service.

With the passing of Barbara Bush, the nation is going through the ritual of praising all her virtues and accomplishments while ignoring completely her faults and shortcomings. That’s largely as it should be. Basic politeness and a healthy respect for our institutions requires that we focus on the positive when a first lady passes on. But this custom is no friend of the truth.

Barbara Bush was extremely hard on her children, especially George who seems to have been a big disappointment to her. I had to cringe when I saw that she told the doctor on her death bed that George turned out the way he did because she smoked and drank while she was pregnant. The former president told the story in a lighthearted manner, suggesting that she was always making jokes like that. And that’s exactly the problem. That’s about the most vicious thing she could have said about her son as she was dying. It’s the kind of joke that has too much sincerity behind it to be funny. Why not say, instead, that she was proud of him and that he exceeded all her expectations? He was, after all, elected as governor of Texas and to two terms as president of the United States. Is that not enough for a mother, even if he was perhaps not a good president in the end?

This is how she damaged her son, and we’re all guilty of doing this to some degree or another with our children. But the world doesn’t suffer for it the way it did from the presidency of George W. Bush.

I like to allow a little time before I speak ill of the dead, which is why I held my tongue for a bit about Barbara Bush. As hard as it is for me to take, I recognize the value of treating our leaders and their families with a bit of deference and a sometimes undeserved default level of respect, so I can abide the tongue-bath the media has been giving the former first lady. I definitely think people like Roger Stone go too far in the other direction:

Trump political consigliere Roger Stone unloaded on Barbara Bush in an Instagram post on Tuesday evening just hours after her death. There, Stone wrote that the former first lady was a “nasty drunk” and posted a quote from him suggesting that if you lit her body on fire it would “burn for three days.”

“Barbara Bush was a nasty drunk. When it came to drinking she made Betty Ford look like Carrie Nation #blottoBabs,” said Stone. “Barbara Bush drank so much booze, if they cremated her … her body would burn for three days.”

But you don’t have to be vicious in kind to note that Barbara Bush wasn’t a nice person. The main thing I will always remember her by was her reaction to visiting the Astrodome where refugees from Hurricane Katrina were being temporarily housed. A lot of the people there were black and from the swamped Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Ms. Bush was alarmed that they expressed an interest in staying in her state and suggested that they were better off living on a cot in a sporting facility than they had been in their homes.

“Almost everyone I’ve talked to says, ‘We’re going to move to Houston.’ What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality.”

“And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them.”

We may never recover from her son’s presidency which seems to have permanently broken our country, and I don’t blame her drinking and smoking for that. I do think the way she treated her son had a lot to do with it, though. There are a lot of people she didn’t treat well, and that will be her most lasting legacy for me.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at