Journalist And Author Susan Page To Keynote Centennial Celebration Of 19th Amendment
On March 7, 2020, the Dayton Area League of Women Voters will host an event commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, as well as the 100th anniversary of the League of Women Voters, established in 1920.
This year, the League has selected journalist and author Susan Page as their keynote speaker. Page is the author of The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty. She is also the Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today, and appears as a political analyst on ABC's This Week, CBS Face the Nation, Fox News Sunday and NBC’s Meet the Press.
In this interview with WYSO’s Jerry Kenney, Page talks about her in-depth conversations with Barbara Bush, whose grandfather lived in Dayton, and her thoughts on her career as a journalist about to cover her eleventh presidential election.
Jerry Kenney: Susan, thanks so much for speaking with us today. On March 7th, you will be the keynote speaker at an event for the Dayton Area League of Women Voters. Tell us what you're going to speak to audiences there about.
Susan Page: You know, I'm going to talk about my book about Barbara Bush, who loved the League of Women Voters, thought it was an important organization and also had a family connection to Dayton. I don't know if people in Dayton are still aware of this, but her father grew up in Dayton and she told me when I interviewed her for the book that one of her favorite childhood memories was her dad would take her on the train from New York, where they lived, to Dayton to visit her eccentric grandparents. And, her grandfather, whose name was Scott Pierce, would take her on the bus in Dayton downtown wearing his bathroom slippers. That was one of her big childhood memories.
JK: What time frame are we talking here?
SP: Her grandparents moved to Dayton in 1898 when her father was just a little boy, and lived there the rest of their lives.
JK: And, when were you able to talk to Barbara Bush in researching your book?
SP: I started doing this book in 2017. This is when Barbara Bush was 92 years old and, as it turned out, in the final months of her life. And in doing, I covered Barbara Bush in various presidential campaigns. But I didn't know her really well, and when I signed the contract to do the book, I had no agreement with her that she would cooperate. And my reasoning was, if I asked for her cooperation and she said, no, I'd be very discouraged. Maybe I'd chicken out. But if I ask her to cooperate before I signed a contract and she said yes, she might think she had some control over what I wrote.
So, I took a leap of faith, I signed a contract. I wrote her a letter and said, Could I interview you? And after about a week, she said, yes, I could interview her once. And in the first interview, I asked if I could interview her again and she said, yes, and at the end of the second, I ask again, and you can see where this is going. I interviewed her five times, five long interviews in her home in Houston during the final six months of her life.
JK: And how did she appear during those interviews?
SP: She was a pistol. She hadn't dropped a step mentally. She remembered everything. She still had things that delighted her and she still had grudges she was nursing, including against Donald Trump and against Nancy Reagan, and she seemed delighted to talk about those. She was she was a delight to interview and very candid. And, you know, one thing that she didn't like about the book was she hated the title that I had because she didn't like the word matriarch, which she thought made her sound very self-important. And, she didn't like the word dynasty, which she thought also just conveyed the wrong tone of entitlement, and so in one interview, I said, well, you don't like my title. What would you make the title of this book? And, she said, “The Fat Lady Sings Again."
You know, she told me so many great stories. She told me about her long feud with Nancy Reagan. Even though I had covered both the Reagan administration and the Bush administration, I had not been aware about how much they disliked one another. And she also told me about how much she didn't like Donald Trump, which you might expect, given that Donald Trump defeated her son Jeb for the nomination in 2016. She told me that, in fact, if the first time I interviewed her, I said, are you still a Republican? And she said, Yes, I'm still a Republican. The last time I interviewed her, I said, you know, six months ago, you said you were still a Republican. Are you still a Republican? And she said, no, I don't think so. Which is remarkable for someone who had been a face of the Republican Party for so many decades.
JK: That is, and so that feud goes way back, certainly with Nancy Reagan. Did she give indications as to what was at issue there?
SP: Well, you know, she thought Nancy Reagan was pretty mean to her, and of course, for eight years, Nancy Reagan was first lady and Barbara Bush was second lady, and Barbara Bush had to constantly defer to Nancy Reagan, who she found kind of mean. And finally, when the Bushes were out of the White House, this was right after they had moved back to Houston, after the inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993, Nancy Reagan called her with another outlandish explanation of something she had done that had hurt Barbara Bush's feelings, and Barbara Bush said to her, "I'm tired of your explanations. Don't ever call me again." And then she said something I bet all of us have said. She said "Oh, my other phone is ringing," and she hung up. Now, in fact, her other phone was not ringing, but she did hang up and the two women never had an extended conversation again.
JK: You mentioned that she didn't like the term "dynasty" in the title of your book. It's one way of describing, certainly the family and the power that they amassed, but the Bush family was very family-centered, weren't they?
SP: Oh, totally. She was completely devoted to her husband and to her children and to her grandchildren. And she didn't like the word dynasty when it seemed like a political term. Although, of course, she was one of only two women in American history to be the wife of one president and the mother of another president, and to be the mother of two governors of two of our biggest states, and to be the grandmother of someone elected to statewide office in Texas, her grandson, George P. Bush. So, she was the leader of a political dynasty.
But, one way in which she liked thinking about those next generations of her children, and especially of her grandchildren, is not as a political dynasty, but as a dynasty of public service. And, when you look at her grandchildren, several of them have undertaken jobs that involve public service that is not political.
You know, her namesake, Barbara Bush, her granddaughter and who has the same name, Barbara Bush, helped create the Global Health Corps, which is a going concern that provides health care in the developing world. Another granddaughter, Lauren Bush - Lauren helped create a feeding program for hungry children. She has a grandson who was head of the largest boys club/girls club in the United States. She had another grandson, who I discovered had served in Afghanistan while his uncle was president, in service that was never disclosed at the time, the family never talked about it, but Walker Bush served two tours of duty in Afghanistan.
JK: Was there anything that surprised you in those five interviews?
SP: Here's one of the extraordinary things about this set of interviews. At the first interview, she said, "Don't even ask to see my diaries, you can't see them." And, she'd been keeping these diaries in 1948, and she kept it.... The last entry was made just about nine days before she died. So, these diaries spanned her remarkable life. And, I took her at a word, if I had a diary, believe me, I would not let a reporter read them, but I asked to see parts of her diary that dealt with Raisa Gorbachev and she said she would think about that.
In the very last time I saw [Barbara], although we didn't know that was the last interview I would have — we had another interview scheduled but she passed away before the sixth interview took place — I said, have you thought about whether I can see these parts of your diary? And she said, "I've thought about it. I've decided you can see them. You can see them all." All of her diaries, all these decades of diaries, and I was so surprised that I said the worst possible thing, I said, "Are you sure?" And of course, she was sure because she was pretty much sure of everything.
JK: You did get a chance to see those? And what were your thoughts?
SP: I did. Her diaries have been given to her husband's presidential library with the provision that they cannot be read by anyone until 35 years after her life. So, it will be another, what, 33 years before anyone else can read them. But I spent hours at the Bush 41 Library in College Station going through a box after box after box of these remarkable documents.
JK: And was there a stipulation that you not talk about what you read?
SP: Well, there was a stipulation that I was looking for the things that are illuminating about her life, not about every little sensational tidbit that might be hurtful to someone else. But she didn't place, you know... she was pretty trusting about it. And of course, by the time I was finishing the book, she had passed away. So, I did go through with her chief of staff what I was using for the diaries. But, you know, it was pretty much a leap of faith on her part to let me see them.
JK: I'm wondering if you gleaned any information or insight about her based on her writing style in her personal diaries.
SP: You know, the thing that struck me most about her diary is the way in which the death of her daughter Robin, when Robin was three years old and when Barbara Bush was 29 years old, was a thread through the rest of her life. It was really an event that shaped her attitude toward people. It shaped gave her a tougher skin. It made her more empathetic to the way life can beat you up. She writes in her diary over and over again about Robin, about this is Robin's birthday or this is a day Robin died, or I wonder what Robin will look like in heaven. In that, I thought was a remarkable insight because Barbara Bush came across, I think, as kind of a tough broad, right? As someone who was kind of funny and plainspoken. But the fact is, her diaries made it clear that she also had wounds that never healed, including the death of Robin.
JK: As you mentioned, your covering your 11th presidential election. Let's put this in context on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and the hundred year anniversary of the League of Women Voters, and you can take this question any way you want, kind of an overview from start to finish or maybe even how much work there is still to do.
SP: I'm just struck over and over again by what a young nation we are. You know, I've interviewed the last nine presidents. You know, we've only had 44 presidents, I've interviewed nine of them. It means either I'm extremely old or it means that we're a very young nation. So, I assume that, I would like to take the perspective that we're a young nation. The fact that women have only had the right to vote for a hundred years is also astounding to me in a way, when you think about how far and how fast we've come.
Now we have a presidential campaign in which there are multiple women running for the Democratic nomination. We had the first woman nominated for president last time around. We have a woman who is Speaker of the House for the first time. So, I guess I feel like we're a nation is still, in a way, figuring things out. We're a dynamic nation — we continue to change. Sometimes that can be satisfying, sometimes it can be terrifying. But, the 100th anniversary of the League of Women Voters and of women winning the right to vote, it's a reminder to me of all that.
JK: You mentioned the Speaker of the House, and if we can give our listeners a little preview, you're working on another book about Nancy Pelosi.
SP: I am. I'm working on a biography of Nancy Pelosi that's coming out early next year. You know, she and Barbara Bush are different in many ways. You know, one's a Republican, one's a Democrat. One was the wife of a public official, the other has been the public official herself. But there are some similarities between the two of them and one of the similarities between them is that I think for many years, each of them was underestimated. Their impact and their abilities underestimated, and with both biographies, I've tried to bring that to light.
JK: Well, let me just ask. When you look back at the experiences you've had in covering presidential administrations and the people you've talked to over the years, how do you assess your own career?
SP: You know, never in my life did I think I would have the opportunities I've had as a journalist. I was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas, in the Midwest, just like Ohio. And, I had not spent a night outside the state of Kansas until I went away to college and enrolled at Northwestern, and yet, in the years since then, I've interviewed all these presidents. I've written a book, I've been able to see big historic events as they happen and try to convey them to people, so, I guess in many ways I just feel like the luckiest person on Earth.
JK: And with that in mind. Any advice for the young men and women who were working in newsrooms across the country?
SP: It's a tough time for the news industry. You know, we're in we're in a state of turmoil, but, if being a journalist is what you want to be, it is the only thing you can be, whatever happens with the business.
JK: Susan Page, thanks so much for your time today and we look forward to your speaking at the League of Women Voters event on March 7, honoring the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment and 100 years of the League of Women Voters.
SP: Jerry, thank you so much.