Thursday, April 19, 2018

Recalling Formidable Women

George Bush Presidential Library and Museum
Recalling Formidable Women — Mrs. Bush and Miss Smith.
by Denis Ferrara

“THE purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”― Ralph Waldo Emerson
I KNEW I’d have to find something meaningful about a life well lived, in writing about the passing of Barbara Bush.  I chose the Emerson quote because I tend to agree that if you expect happiness in life, you inhabit the skin of the wrong species.   Honor, compassion, making a difference — in a manner well-known or totally anonymous (as most of us live) has to be the goal. 

But in Mrs. Bush’s case, there was compassion, honor, good deeds done in a vile world, and — Emerson notwithstanding — happiness.  One of the many clips that ran Tuesday night was an interview with the former First Lady to George H. W. Bush and mother of George W. Bush in which she said, with a conviction that simply could not be faked, that she was “the happiest woman in the world.”
“The happiest woman in the world” with her husband of 73 years, George H. W. Bush.
This utterance came after her time in the White House, but perhaps during her son’s years at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.  But it wasn’t prideful, as in “Look at me, former First Lady, now mother to a president, ain’t I something?!”

It was instead the remark of a person who had lived and was living fully; productive and uncompromised.
I never met Mrs. Bush, although I saw her when she attended at least one of Liz Smith’s Literacy Partners galas.

Liz and Mrs. Bush had a dear friend in common, the designer Arnold Scaasi.  It was he who coordinated their introduction, and Liz was thrilled that Mrs. Bush was as passionate about the importance of literacy as she was. In fact, Mrs. Bush’s Foundation for Family Literacy came about after her exposure to Liz, Arnold and Parker Ladd’s Literacy Partners efforts. 

Liz Smith and Barbara Bush during Literacy Partners' An Evening of Readings and Gala Dinner Dance, April 29, 1996 at Julliard Theater in New York City (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
After Arnold’s death in 2015, Liz received a handwritten note from Mrs. Bush, in which she referred to the designer as a “a piece of work, and a joy! ... There’s no question Arnold helped me and made me feel comfortable. My precious husband said, ‘I am tired of hearing that you are dowdy. Go to New York and buy some designer clothes!’   You know that we copied your celebration of reading and made millions for Family Literacy.  The children have taken over my foundation and made $17 million celebrating my 90th birthday — all this came from your New York evening.

Mrs. Bush concluded: “I also love Parker Ladd and am glad they married. Parker is a saint!  Thank you, Liz, most sincerely, Barbara.”

Liz was very fond of Mrs. Bush — she never allowed her own liberal Democratic beliefs to get in the way of making contact with people, forging a friendship or finding a common ground. (Liz would have been an excellent politician or an actor, which of course, is practically the same thing.)  

Liz said to me once, after receiving some correspondence from Mrs. Bush, “She’s a great, formidable woman.  I don’t think of her as a Republican at all, although she’s certainly the best kind of Republican. If her husband had decided to become a gangster, she would have been the greatest gangster’s moll of all time; and her own woman, as well.”

Mrs. Bush’s death was expected. The family had announced she was receiving only palliative care; her struggle was ending.  So when the news broke, it was not a surprise.  But — and I hope I can convey this properly — it was kind of a blessing, in terms of what the report of her passing broke into. 
H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush in Houston for the Super Bowl in 2017. georgewbush/Instagram
From a runaway train of unpalatable characters making news and reporting news, from either side of the political spectrum, we were pulled into considering the long and productive life of a person who had served her country and her family honorably, powerfully, with dignity humor and honesty.  She didn’t suffer fools gladly, and she didn’t suffer the possible extension of her own family dynasty gladly either — she famously said “there have been enough Bushs” on the matter of son Jeb entering the presidential race.  Of course, when Jeb did run, she ran with him — on a walker, sharp as a tack, the fierce and completely informed mama bear. 
When the “breaking news” cycle returned  inevitably on Tuesday night to porn stars and shady lawyers, ridiculously polarized political pundits and the general undignified chaos of our current existence, the comparison was striking.  And not to the benefit of anybody who holds high office at the moment or to most of those who comment on our dear leader, whether they are for or against him.

No matter what anybody thought of President Bush 41 or 43 — and they have been better men out of office than in — Barbara Bush didn’t raise our taxes, start any wars, or declare any mission accomplished.  In fact, her life and legacy is that one’s life mission is never accomplished. There is always more to do,  other people to meet and other goals. Curiosity remains.  In those ways, she reminded me very much of my friend, Liz Smith.

Another piece of an interview with Mrs. Bush was shown a lot on Tuesday night.  She said: “You have to decide if you like what you do in life or you dislike what you do.  I decided to like what I do!” 
That, too, reminded me of Liz, who died at 94, and to the end liked what she did and loved her life. 

So, I know that among the many who will greet Mrs. Bush, Liz will be there, recommending a good book, a good drink, and having a hearty talk about what we down here still have to endure. 

(Arnold Scaasi will be there as well, insisting that two of his most famous clients absolutely have to “dress up.”  They will ignore his plea, lovingly.)
Contact Denis here.