October 03, 1994 12:00 PM

IT IS FIRST THING ON A MONDAY morning at Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport, Maine, and not even the threatening skies or the autumnal nip in the air can slow down George and Barbara Bush and their assembled troops. The former Chief Executive, looking presidential indeed in a pinstriped suit, whizzes past in a golf cart driven by his 10-year-old grandson Jebby, heading off to a photo session somewhere on the 9.6-acre estate. On the tennis court, Bush daughter Doro Koch and her husband, Bobby, are enjoying a spirited game of doubles with some cousins. Inside the big house—there are also guest quarters and a cabin where some Secret Service agents are lounging—children and grandchildren continually burst into the spacious mint-green living room with a dramatic view of the Atlantic to see what Ganny’s plans are for the day. But Ganny, who looks absolutely fit, tanned and rested in a bright blue turtleneck, white slacks and well-scuffed white Keds, has one thing on her mind, and one thing only: golf.

In theory, of course, the subject that should be consuming Barbara Bush is herself—as in the newly published Barbara Bush: A Memoir (Scribner). The product of a lifetime of diary keeping and letter writing, this hefty, 575-page volume begins with Barbara Pierce’s comfortable childhood in Rye, N.Y., then takes the reader on an international dash through her years as a political wife and ends contentedly in the present, post-White House era. Though the book offers precious few revelations—one is that the former First Lady is definitively pro-choice—readers seem to be as interested in Mrs. Bush as they were in her 8-year-old springer spaniel Millie; the book is already climbing best-seller lists. Though she says she “loved writing it”—and was happy to receive the reported $2.2 million advance—Bush, 69, is the first to point out that it is decidedly unladylike to think and talk only of oneself. “You know what the most embarrassing question people ask me is?” she says. ” ‘Oh, you’ve written a book. What’s it about?’ ”

On the page, this is the Barbara Bush the American public knows well: loyal wife, mother and grandmother. And the evidence in the house at Walker’s Point bears out her self-portrait. “Having a family”—in her case 5 children and 13 grandchildren—”is still the most important thing you can do, if you’re lucky enough,” she says.

But this is also the Barbara Bush who, during the 1984 campaign, let slip the infamous “rhymes with rich” appellation in describing George’s rival, Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. Now she can barely conceal her impatience with the rounds of interviews and photo sessions necessary to promote her book (including, amazingly, a mid-September appearance on Late Show with David Letter man), and she is not especially interested in soul-searching. She says, for instance, that she cannot imagine living her life differently if she had the chance: “Why waste your time worrying about what you would have done before?”

This stiff-upper-lip spirit has served her well during the few painful chapters of her life: the 1953 death of her daughter Robin of leukemia at age 3, a six-month episode of depression she endured in her early 50s, and the 1992 presidential campaign. Out of dark moments, she insists, comes strength. “I remember when people said to me when Robin was sick, ‘You’ll be better for it.’ And I wanted to hit them right between the eyes,” Bush says. “The truth is, we’re probably all better because of Robin, but that’s a hell of a price to pay.” As for the depression—which she attributes in part to menopause (though it also coincided with early rumors of her husband’s alleged infidelity)—”it was a very good thing for me because I had been sort of intolerant of people who thought about themselves all the time.” She pauses. “I still am, I hate to tell you.”

She prefers to think instead of the man she still calls “my hero” after 49 years of marriage—George Bush, 70. Not surprisingly, his 1992 defeat still rankles. “The last campaign just killed me. It was so painful,” she acknowledges. “And you have to be careful that you don’t sound bitter, because I’m not.” In fact, according to her second son, Jeb, 41, his mother had moved on before election night was even over. As the numbers began rolling in that evening, he recalls, “my mom started to go read a book. But two or three times she’d come back into the room and say things like, ‘How do you get a driver’s license?’—making joking comments that the real world was close upon them.”

Bush says she was happy to return to that real world—happier, certainly, than her husband, who had to adjust to the fact that he was no longer, as she puts it, “sitting on 20,000 things that you’ve got to keep your eye on” as President. The worst moment for George came, she says, when his beloved dog Ranger (son of Millie) died in the spring of 1993. “I think he let Ranger be sort of the tunnel of mourning,” she says. “You can’t cry, if you’re a man, over an election, you can’t cry over your mother [who died after the election], I guess.”

But Barbara, too, felt “a void in my life” and filled it with plans for the Bushes’ new home in Houston, which they moved into last October; with continuing work for the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy; and with her book, which she wrote herself on an IBM ThinkPad. But becoming a civilian did have its difficulties. “The worst shock I had was the fact that I couldn’t just meld into real life,” she says. The Bushes were forced to build a six-foot wall to keep gawkers away from their Houston home, and even now, she points out testily, a tourist boat is cruising in close to Walker’s Point, hoping for a glimpse of the former First Family.

She also had to learn to drive all over again after 12 years of having a driver, a fact that provides much entertainment for her aides and her family. Recalls son Marvin, 37, a Washington banker: “I got a call one day, and it was Dad, saying, ‘You won’t believe what I’m watching right now. Your mom is backing out of the driveway in the car.’ My concern wasn’t for her as much as it was for everyone else on the road.”

Though the Bushes have for the most part stayed out of politics, they are campaigning for their two sons who are running for governor—George W. in Texas and Jeb in Florida. And they still count among their friends such luminaries as French President Francois Mitterrand and British Prime Minister John Major. Of the current Administration, Barbara Bush will only say tersely, “I take no joy in what the Clintons are going through.”

Instead she remains focused on life’s simpler pleasures. The profusion of flowers around Walker’s Point is testament to her love of gardening; the pond, she points out, attracted a great blue heron this past summer; and there’s her golf game—which even the slight drizzle cannot keep her from. After all, she broke 100 last week, and she’s determined to do it again. So, does the self-proclaimed “luckiest woman in the world” miss Washington at all? “Don’t miss what you can’t have,” she says. Besides, she allows, gazing out over the tennis court, “this is not tough living.”

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