A sidebar on Barbara Bush

The death of Barbara Bush at the age of 92 gives us the occasion to look back on a meaningful life well lived. She died in Houston yesterday surrounded by her family. The wife of the 41st president, the mother of the 43rd, she was a great and gallant lady in her own right. She was widely admired and respected. The full Houston Chronicle obituary is posted here. I want only to add a sidebar.

Mrs. Bush was the author of several books, one of which must be the most successful book yet written by a First Lady. I refer, of course, to Millie’s Book, the inside account of the Bush White House by the family dog, a beloved English English Springer Spaniel. The book gave us Millie’s observations “as dictated to Barbara Bush.”

Published in August 1990, the book was something of a phenomenon. It reached number 1 on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list and spent 23 weeks on the Publishers Weekly hardcover best-seller list.

Millie wrote with a sense of humor reflecting her owner. “I overheard the Bushes talking the other night,” Millie reported. “Some discussion about me keeping a lower profile. The media were reporting that I was getting more publicity than some members of the Cabinet. Considering some of my press, maybe they should be grateful.”

The book received a favorable review in the New York Times — by Garfield. Via his creator Jim Davis, Garfield judged the book “Not bad for a dog.”

The book generated substantial royalties. The Bushes’ 1991 tax return was made public when it was filed, and a number of news stories were written about it at the time. That return was newsworthy because the Bushes’ income that year was three times as high as in any other year of the Bush presidency.

John and I obtained a copy of the Bushes’ 1991 tax return for the article that became “George Bush’s tax return,” published in the issue of National Review dated May 30, 1994.

It wasn’t difficult to ascertain the source of the bump in income or what the Bushes had done with it. We found that Mrs. Bush earned $889,176 in royalties on Millie’s Book that year. The Bushes donated substantially all of these proceeds from Millie’s Book to charity — $818,803, or 62 per cent of the Bushes’ income that year. They contributed to 49 different charities, everything from Ducks Unlimited to the United Negro College Fund, but the main beneficiary was the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, which received $789,176.

Adult and family literacy was Mrs. Bush’s great philanthropic cause. Her good deeds survive her.

The Bushes’ charitable contributions that year exceeded the maximum deductible amount. After giving away more than 60 percent of their income to charity, the Bushes had $505,653 left, of which they paid $239,063 — 47 percent — in taxes.

In a remarkable piece of dishonesty, investigative reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele attacked the Bushes for paying only 18.1 percent of their 1991 income in taxes. Barlett and Steele’s committed this drive-by smear in their syndicated newspaper series and subsequent book America: Who Really Pays the Taxes? They never did get around to answering that question or disclosing the Bushes’ donation of more than 60 percent of their income to charity in 1991.

As we worked on the article, we wondered why Barlett and Steele had omitted any mention of the Bushes’ charitable contributions that year. In fact, we tried to find out why. We left numerous messages for Barlett and Steele, but they declined to return our calls. We faxed a letter to them posing questions including why they failed to disclose the Millie’s Book income and the Bushes’ generous charitable contributions. They declined to respond. We also asked them for copies of their 1991 tax returns. Needless to say, we did not get them, but we thought it unlikely that they had ever donated 62 percent of their incomes to charity in that year or any other.

It’s an old chapter in a never-ending saga that reflects the character of Mrs. Bush, to be sure, but also the character of our extraordinarily partisan and dishonest media.

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