The biggest break that USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page got in researching her new Barbara Bush biography was access to the former first lady’s decades' worth of diaries.
Speaking at the Loyola University Institute of Politics’ annual Ed Renwick Lecture Tuesday night, Page said that Bush, who died last year, decided to let her read the volumes only after multiple interviews. Few others had ever seen the volumes, Page said, and they won’t be made available for public view for several decades.
Page’s new book, “The Matriarch,” is full of anecdotes mined from Bush’s personal notes. One of them didn’t come up at the Tuesday event in New Orleans, but it's likely to be of interest to local readers.
Bush’s 2005 comments while visiting evacuated Hurricane Katrina victims at the Houston Astrodome were widely criticized as insensitive and tone-deaf.
“Almost everyone I’ve talked to says, ‘We’re going to move to Houston,'” she said at the time. “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.”
Page wrote that Bush, who was well-known for pursuing adult literacy and reaching out to children impacted by AIDS/HIV, complained that her words had been misconstrued.
“I got taken out of context and was quoted as saying, ‘They were all poverty stricken’…like they didn’t matter,” she wrote in her diary. “I did say that I was proud of Houston and that all the people we talked to saw an opportunity to get a new life and had hope for the first time and wanted to stay in Houston.”
If Bush was upset about appearing dismissive, she was also apparently concerned that her words would compound problems that then-President George W. Bush was facing for his handling of the storm and the federal response. Page wrote that, among other things, the president’s mother was worried that her comments “might hurt GWB.”