I had the world’s greatest grandparents. Sure, everyone says that, but with a question like this, my opinion is the only one that matters. Louise, “Weezie” as she was affectionately called by my grandfather, was the kindest, sweetest and most upbeat person. She always had a smile on her face that instantly made you feel happy and loved.
My grandfather Jimmy was more than quite a character. He was a legend, and he spoke in a language that was colorfully comical — and coherent only to those who could speak in his vernacular or loved him very much.
I always told people that he was my favorite person in the world, and he would reciprocate. He talked to everyone. He never met a stranger, and when he died his wake was full of servers from his favorite restaurants, cashiers at all the stores he frequented, people who cut the grass in his complex, and anyone who had the opportunity to talk to him — and come away doubled over in laughter.
He was enormously proud of me — probably more so than anyone ever in my life. When I worked in Congress, he excitedly hyped it so much to his friends that by the time he got done building me up, I was working for President Bush (the first one). I had to undo that misconception every time somebody would say, “Your grandfather says you work for President Bush?”
In her new book about her grandparents, President George H. W. Bush and former First Lady Barbara Bush, Everything Beautiful in Its Time, Jenna Bush Hager shares some lovely, funny, and thoughtful moments and recollections about them. One of the chapters from the book making news is a story about her grandmother’s change of heart, at 90, about sexuality and transgender people.
This happened during a lunch Mrs. Bush had in 2015 with out presidential historian Timothy Naftali, who came out — and more so — to the former First Lady. It got me thinking about one of my biggest regrets in life, never coming out to Jimmy and Weezie. It makes me sad that while they probably had an idea that I was gay, I never had the courage or the heart to tell them.
I spoke with Naftali, at length, about his day with Jenna’s grandparents, and I came away from our discussion with the reaffirmation that Barbara Bush, for many years until her death, was indeed America’s quintessential grandmother. During Naftali’s retelling of their intimate and pointed conversation, I found myself living vicariously through his experience, imagining myself explaining sexuality to my own grandmother.
Naftali had to earn his day with the matriarch and patriarch of the Bush family. “I had helped fellow presidential historian Jon Meacham with his book about the former president. I had written a book about 41 (George H.W. Bush) previously, so I had some experience with research and history, so I was able to weigh in on Meacham’s manuscript and provide helpful edits and suggestions,” Naftali explained.
After Meacham’s book was published, he called to thank Naftali for his help, and asked if he could return the favor. “I had never met the Bushes, so I asked him if there was any way he could help make that happen. As it turns out, Jon was going to Kennebunkport to thank the former first couple for all their help with the book, so he asked if I wanted to tag along with him, and I jumped at the chance.”
Naftali said that beyond being Bush’s official biographer, Meacham was also one of the former president’s closest friends, and that Meacham gave the eulogy at Bush’s funeral; thus, Naftali realized that his impending visit would mean that he would probably have to be in the background, listen more rather than speak, and more or less act with a reverential decorum towards the former first couple.
When they arrived at Walker’s Point, the Bush compound on the gorgeous Maine seaside coast, Naftali instantly recognized that Mrs. Bush was “spirited.” “President Bush suffered from a form of Parkinson’s disease, so it was up to Mrs. Bush to keep the dialogue moving, and speak for him,” Naftali remembered. “However, she was not afraid to veer out on subjects on her own, including voicing her opinions about her husband’s successor, Bill Clinton, and the current president, Obama. Some of her comments showed her biting wit, but they also revealed a serious side to her. She was not a gun fan, for example.”
And that included her feelings about the AIDS crisis. “I had been working on a book about the history of gay men in D.C., and I asked her about how she was able to encourage her husband to speak about the AIDS crisis while he ran for president in 1988,” Naftali said. “She got the former president to visit an AIDS clinic during the campaign, and once he was inaugurated, she visited with patients, including a young man dying from the disease.”
What Naftali noticed about that part of their discussion was how broken up Mrs. Bush became when she looked back at that time, including that visit with the AIDS victim and a baby who had died that she held in her arms. “She remembered every detail of that gentleman, the fact that he was Catholic, that he had lost his mother and was rejected by his father. And the baby that died. She was very emotional about it, and she teared up. I could feel that it was still painful for her.”
Once they arrived at one of the Bush’s favorite restaurants for lunch, and sat at their table, Mrs. Bush told Naftali that the gentleman that greeted them at the door was one of their closets friends — and then added, a bit surprisingly, that he was gay. Naftali felt an opening and took it. “I sensed that,” he quickly replied, “I’m gay too.” Mrs. Bush shot back, “I sensed that too.”
I interrupted Naftali, and humorously asked if he thought Mrs. Bush had a gaydar? “I won’t say she had a gaydar,” he chuckled. “But I think Mrs. Bush was someone who was very aware, and very attuned to people. She was different in a way that many public figures, politicians or even other First Ladies are in that she related to you as a person and wasn’t afraid to be herself and say what was on her mind. So many people of that stature are so guarded, and so scripted. That was not Mrs. Bush. She was genuine and had a strong mind of her own.”
From there, the conversation, at Mrs. Bush’s prompting, dove right in to the subject of sexuality, as she and Naftali began to talk about a recent Obama appointee who was transgender. “She made a comment about why they even need to point that part out, and that when other officials are announced, they don’t attribute them as being heterosexual.”
“I explained as best I could to her about how the transgender community has been struggling for so long, and when something as prominent as the White House, or a president, recognizes them, or anyone in the LGBTQ community, it has an overwhelmingly positive effect, not only on that particular group’s relevance but about how other Americans view that group’s place in our society.”
Naftali said that he didn’t want to overstep his bounds by seeming like he was trying to educate a former First Lady. He also took into consideration that her generation wasn’t as comfortable hearing about, or talking about, subjects related to sexuality. “I had to keep reminding myself that I was a guest of Jon’s, so I didn’t want to come across too strongly, but she seemed more than willing to engage in a spirited conversation, which was her nature. She was someone who didn’t try to b.s. you, so I wanted to be as forthright as I could for her.”
Mrs. Bush then asked Naftali what he thought of Caitlyn Jenner, and why she was being heralded as a hero? He said that she was a significant symbol, and then Mrs. Bush questioned about how important gender-reassignment surgery was for defining gender. “At that point, I felt like I could let go a bit, and come clean about my own tough time coming out, and about the difficulty most of us have with the coming out journey. I said that a person should be allowed to come to terms with their own sexuality or gender identity in their own way.”
After awhile, Barbara Bush finally “got it.” She told Naftali, “It is not a choice.” And he replied, “We’re just born that way.” I asked Naftali if President Bush was involved at all. Did he witness your illuminating give and take? “Yes, you could tell from his head and eye movements that he was paying attention and listening to what was being discussed.”
“You have to remember, this was in October of 2015, and at the time her son Jeb was running for president, and there was a distinct possibility that he could win,” Naftali elucidated. “She didn’t know me, and for all she knew I could have been having this conversation with the goal of writing a story around her thoughts. It was very bold of her to be so honest, and to absorb this all the way she did.”
Weeks after the lunch, Meacham received a note of thanks from Mrs. Bush, part of which read, “I so enjoyed the lunch and Tim won the argument or he changed my mind about so much. Transgenders are born that way … Please tell him that at 90 I learned a lot from our lunch …”
“After she died, I called Jon and asked if it was ok if I wrote about that day, and if he thought the Bushes would be ok with it, so with his approval I wrote a short column for The Atlantic,” Naftali related. “And then a few months ago, I got an email from Jenna, who saw the story and wanted to meet with me to discuss it for her book. Her grandmother had never talked to her, or with anyone else presumably in the family, about sexuality and transgender issues. I think Jenna was really impressed and overwhelmed by her grandmother’s understanding and reaction.”
USA Today Washington reporter Susan Page authored Barbara Bush’s biography, The Matriarch, and as part of that she had access to Mrs. Bush’s diary. Turns out, that day with Naftali left an indelible mark on Mrs. Bush. That evening she wrote:
“I ended up being persuaded in my mind that after years of hiding this may be a good thing,” she wrote in her diary at age 90. “Nobody wants to be born Gay or Transgender. They have been misunderstood for years. [Tim] won the argument.” She added: “There are a world of folks born transgender who are quiet and lonely. How sad to be in the wrong body.”
Part of the vicariousness of Naftali’s story is believing that my grandmother would have reacted the same way, and that she and Jimmy would have come to an agreement that my sexuality didn’t matter to them, and that my grandfather would continue to think of me as his favorite person in the world. However, knowing how he upped the ante on everything I did, he would most likely tell everyone not only that I was gay, but that I was married to Elton John.