I only met her once, but the woman left an impression.

I was a young reporter at the Morning Sentinel in Waterville that day in early 1980 when I got a last-minute assignment: Go interview Barbara Bush, the wife of then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush, on her campaign swing through town.

I can’t for the life of me remember exactly how I began the interview, except that I’d had zero time to prepare and, to be honest, hadn’t a clue who Barbara Bush was beyond the fact that she was the wife of the guy running against Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination.

But to this day, I remember her looking me square in the eye as I fumbled with my notebook and, merely by opening my mouth, betrayed my ignorance.

“Well,” she proclaimed matter-of-factly, “that’s the most ridiculous question I’ve heard all day.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way, ma’am,” I stammered.

“Try again,” she said with a bemused smile.

And so I did. And by the time it was over, she’d declared me a “fine young man” and I’d come around to the realization that, frightening as she may have seemed at first, she actually was a nice woman.

Barbara Bush’s death Tuesday marked more than just the end of a life well lived by the woman who went on to become the wife of one president and the mother of another.

Her passing punctuates how precipitously we’ve fallen of late, how far we’ve strayed from what once we considered civil behavior, how much times have changed – and not for the better.

As the Bush family prepares to bury its matriarch, and as Maine mourns the loss of its adopted grandmother, it feels like more than just the inevitable passing of a woman whose grit and grace placed her for so long at the pinnacle of American politics.

Barbara Bush’s long life also reminds us that what’s happening now in our body politic – the out-of-control White House, the evaporation of truth, the utter debasement of the Republican Party she held so dear – represents a radical departure from where we all stood not too long ago.

Barbara Bush devoted much of her life to child literacy.

Donald Trump, a boy trapped inside a man’s body, boasts of having the “best words” as he tortures the English language daily with his often-incomprehensible Twitter storms. Even his statement commemorating her death went out under the wrong date.

Barbara Bush spoke her mind clearly, consistently and often courageously, guided only by her strong sense of right and wrong.

Donald Trump contradicts himself from hour to hour, guided only by the expediency of the moment and his mind-numbing preoccupation with himself.

Barbara Bush lived, first and foremost, for her family.

Donald Trump shames his wife with extramarital affairs and crows that if his daughter wasn’t his daughter he’d date her.

Barbara Bush’s name adorns an elementary school in Houston and the children’s hospital at Maine Medical Center in Portland.

Donald Trump’s name has been affixed to an ever-shrinking array of steaks, wines, colognes, shirts and ties – anything to make a buck.

Barbara Bush rooted herself in reality.

Donald Trump floats from one fantasy to the next, tethered only to his gargantuan ego.

Just over two years ago, during a pre-primary trip across New Hampshire, I listened as Jeb Bush made his pitch to become the third member of his family to ascend to the presidency.

It was not his finest performance. When an applause line in his stump speech fell flat, one woman near the front held up her hands to clap. Then, upon realizing nobody else was applauding, she quickly dropped them to her lap.

Jeb, just a few feet away, noticed.

“Please, clap,” he urged the woman.

The national media, desperate for something new, pounced on the quote – incorrectly reporting that Bush had implored his entire audience to applaud.

He looked so helpless. And I remember wondering, “Where’s Barbara when he needs her? A few well-chosen words about her family, about public service, about true leadership and she’d have these people standing on their chairs.”

A week or two later, at a too-little, too-late debate in South Carolina, Jeb struck back against Trump’s attacks on the Bush family. His mother, he told Trump “is the strongest woman I know.”

Muttered Trump, “She should be running.”

If only. Imagine Trump up there against Barbara, his mano-a-mano insults no match for her icy indignation, his schtick rendered powerless in the face of a woman who with a flick of her hand would have dismissed him for the fool he is.

“He’s like a comedian or like a showman or something,” she said of Trump during a joint appearance with her son on “CBS This Morning” shortly before Jeb dropped out of the race.

In a subsequent interview with CNN, she noted that Trump “doesn’t give many answers to how he would solve problems. He sort of makes faces and says insulting things. …”

How bewildered she appeared by it all.

Long reluctant to see her family slog its way through yet another national campaign, she now seemed so utterly unprepared for this sudden collapse of basic human civility, this wholesale abandonment of the social mores that for so long had underpinned her world.

Try as she might, the woman who never hesitated to speak her mind could neither fathom nor explain this sudden departure of common decency from the rough-and-tumble political arena.

Subscribe – Nemitz



Wednesday morning, in an interview on MSNBC, presidential historian Michael Beschloss addressed the stark contrast between the current political era and those saner times embodied by people like Barbara Bush.

“My guess is that (Trump’s constant vitriol) is not going to be a permanent feature of American politics,” Beschloss predicted. Rather, he said, “the pendulum will swing back to the way it was for most of American history.”

In other words, for all the hand-wringing over the future of the republic, this too shall pass.

As Barbara Bush put it all those years ago, we need only “try again.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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