By Lisa Schwarzbaum
September 09, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

A nation of readers exhausted by the effort of keeping up with the current First Lady’s highly public activities in the field of hairstyle reform may be grateful for Barbara Bush: A Memoir (Scribner, $25), the popular former First Lady’s highly anticipated account of a life in the public eye conducted free of any apparent doubt about how to develop a personal style. I mean, even linking the phrase ”developing a personal style” and the name ”Barbara Bush” in the same sentence sounds foolish, doesn’t it? That boomerish, media-driven concept is of damn little interest to a 69-year-old woman who represents the last of a certain generation-and social class-of political wife.

…Such disregard for trendiness coupled with such comfort in her own unabashedly aging skin have always been an appealing part of Mrs. Bush’s persona-and she uses that genteel forthrightness to what I suspect is unintentionally fascinating advantage in this panoramic memoir of life with former President George Herbert Walker ”Poppy” Bush. Because, kids, don’t be fooled: Under the guise of telling things straight, this nice, white-haired grandmother in a print dress and signature triple strand of pearls can sting like-well, like a word that rhymes with rich.

…The fun of Barbara Bush is in reading past all the expected gracious, diplomatic stuff-all the blah-blah about ”great” friends and ”darling” wives of fellow Republicans-and looking for the moments when the claws come out. In fact, they come out pretty early. ”My mother was a striking beauty who left the world a more beautiful place than she found it,” the memoirist offers, with the kind of Garden Club set phrases that are strewn throughout this book like serviceable mums on a Maine church altar. But read deeper and it seems clear that young ”Bar” didn’t warm to her mother very much at all. ”She was a lucky woman who had a husband who worshiped the ground she walked on. Her ship had come in-she just didn’t know it. That is so sad,” the daughter continues, dutiful and dismissive and neatly sidestepping her own emotions in one ostensibly sympathetic sentence.

…Indeed, with the kind of blithe imperiousness and deft passive aggression that only a certain entitled class can endow, dismissiveness becomes Mrs. Bush’s most powerful weapon-her own literary Scud missile-and she bombs history to shape her own landscape. On Jesse Jackson: ”It always amused me that with all his talk, he sent his children to private schools.” On Gary and Lee Hart: ”(Lee) went on television several times defending her man, and I was sorry to see her put in that position. They have disappeared from public view—I hope, to live happily ever after.” On another former First Lady: ”I often think about Rosalynn Carter, who once innocently had her picture taken with Jim Jones, the man who led the cult to Guyana and forced them to drink poisoned Kool-Aid.” On Cher: ”She is so trim and elegant and has the most beautiful complexion. I told someone how great I thought she looked and they said that she has had every kind of plastic surgery known to man. If that is the case, then we all should line up for the knife.”

…I believe it has just been inserted. Mrs. Bush attacks some targets openly- the press gets regularly drubbed, and the author has an odd obsession with Raisa Gorbachev’s footwear-but it is the subtler targets where her most artful work is done. (Referring to No One in Particular as she discusses how she chose literacy as her official cause, she muses, ”A president has enough troubles-he does not need a wife to stir up more controversy for him.”) Watching this Hell’s Granny in action, thanking her friends, one-two-punching her adversaries and competitors, and defending her husband in a way to make Good Housekeeping enthusiasts say, ”Go get ’em, Bar!” the only thing a reader can do is turn the darling pages and hide the kitchen cutlery. B+

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