Alexander Cockburn | A Bitter Woman

Americans keep odd things up on the mantelpiece, or in the fridge: Dad’s ashes in a biscuit tin or, in Barbara Bush’s case, as her eldest son has just disclosed on national TV, the fetus she miscarried, put in a mason jar and then handed to the teenage George Jr., to take to the hospital. Imagine! “George, honey, could you hold this while I get the car keys?” “What is it, Mom?”

I interviewed Barbara Bush in 1979, when George Sr. was vainly challenging Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination. This was a time when her image handlers were trying to get round the fact that with her defiant white hair, she looked like her husband’s mother. They sold her as “the Silver Fox” — America’s matriarch.

She was horrible. Bitterness seeped out of her like blood from an underdone rib-eye. Every banal question elicited a hiss of derision and contempt.

Years later, some time in the middle of George Jr.’s first term, maybe 2003, I was driving west across Texas and decided to swing north from Interstate 20 and visit Midland, where George Jr. was partly raised, as was the lovely Laura Welch.

My intention was to visit the crossroads where on Nov. 6, 1963, two days after her birthday — yes, she’s a Scorpio — Laura rammed her Chevy into a Corvair driven by her friend, some say erstwhile boyfriend, Michael Douglas, who died in the collision. My theory was always that he’d stiffed her as her birthday date and when she saw Douglas’ Corvair — new model, novel in contour — crossing her path on the Texan plain, treeless back then, she’d put the pedal to the metal. Chevys in those days were well built, and you know what Ralph Nader said about Corvairs — “unsafe at any speed.”

After paying homage, I went off down to the Midland public library where I thought Laura had once worked. A Texan friend of mine had murmured to me that in her single days, Laura “had cut a wide swath through Texas,” and I thought I might pick up some gossip from the librarians. The library had two vast sections: “geology” — filled with maps and data pertaining to that wondrous source of so many fortunes, the oil-rich Permian Basin. The other big section was “Genealogy,” whither the new oil millionaires went to prove ancient lineage and, in the case of the women, to seek evidence that they were eligible to be a Daughter of the American Revolution.

“Didn’t the First Lady work here?” I asked one of the old battle axes. (Actually, she hadn’t. The libraries she served were in Houston and Austin.) There was a short silence, and then, in a contemptuous drawl, she called out to her colleague, “He asking about the Welch girl.”

I found a small room devoted to press cuttings and memorabilia about the Bush clan. There was a color photo from the early 1950s that told all. It showed George Sr. and Barbara at the Midland airstrip, greeting Bush’s father, U.S. Sen. Prescott Bush, and his wife, Dorothy. The senator was dressed in formal black suiting and homburg hat, his wife arrayed with matching formality. His son had a cheapo red slicker. Barbara, unsmiling, looked like someone in a photo by Walker Evans of the Okies fleeing west from the Dustbowl.

I remembered what one of the Bush cousins had told me, back in Massachusetts. “We always looked on George as the complete washout of the family. He went to Texas, he never found oil, he stuck Barbara in a trailer park and then gallivanted across the state.” Her daughter Robin died of leukemia at the age of 4. George Sr. spent more and more time on the road, in Mexico and regions south. Her hair turned white.

This is the furious woman who handed the fetus to young George. If George Sr. hadn’t been on the road, she would probably have thrown the jar at him.

George Jr., by the time he met Laura, was a complete mess, coked up, a heavy drinker. Laura lived at the other end of the Austin condo. Somehow, she detected promise and three months later, one day after her 31st birthday, they married. George was 31, too.

“What do you do?” Barbara asked Laura when George introduced them. “I read (and) I smoke,” Laura famously replied. KO for the Welch girl!

I saw Barbara on the TV on Oct. 30 of this year, part of a full turn-out by the Bush clan at the Arlington stadium for the third game in World Series, the only one the Texas Rangers managed to win, as they went down to defeat by the San Francisco Giants. Barbara looked as bitter as ever, stabbing away at a crossword. Laura looked bored. George Jr. looked happy enough. What a family! Brendan Gill, the great New Yorker writer, told me he’d once spent the night in the Bush manse in Kennebunkport, Maine. Sleepless, he descended from his bedroom in search of reading matter. The only volume in the house he could lay hands on was “The Fart Book.” A tacky family, except for the Welch girl.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book “Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils,” available through

Copyright 2010