How Nancy Reagan Herself Likely Made Sure the Bushes Weren't Invited to White House Dinner for Princess Diana: New Book

"She hated us," Barbara Bush told The Matriarch author Susan Page. "I don't know why, but she really hated us"

Photo: Dirck Halstead/Liaison; Pam Francis/Getty

Not once but twice the names of George H. W. and Barbara Bush were slashed out as invitees for the famed 1985 White House dinner hosted by President Ronald Reagan and his wife for Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

The culprit?

A new biography on Mrs. Bush, Susan Page’s The Matriarch, doesn’t give a definitive answer but notes “the universe of those empowered to do so wouldn’t extend much past the president and the First Lady” — and Nancy Reagan and Mrs. Bush had never been friends.

“She hated us,” Mrs. Bush told Page for her book. “I don’t know why, but she really hated us.”

The dust-up over the Bushes and the dinner for the prince and princess of Wales is only one example of the years-long animosity between the once and future first ladies, according to Page. (According to a disputed anecdote recounted in a 1991 unauthorized biography, Mrs. Reagan once “immediately” re-gifted a wreath sent to her by Mrs. Bush.)

In her book, Page writes that while protocol dictated the Bushes be invited to state dinners, it seems that was all Mrs. Reagan would allow them.

“During their eight years of residency at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Reagans invited the Bushes upstairs to the private family quarters of the White House only a time or two before Bush had been elected to the presidency himself. They never invited the Bushes to accompany them to Camp David,” Page writes.

And then there was the Nov. 9, 1985, dinner for Princess Diana and her husband — “one of the most sought-after invitations of Reagan’s presidency,” according to Page. And one that someone took pains to keep out of reach for the Bushes.

White House dinner, Washington DC, America - 09 Nov 1985
Princess Diana and President Ronald Reagan at a White House dinner on Nov. 9, 1985. REX/Shutterstock
Britain Fashion Diana Dresses, WASHINGTON, USA - 3 Jan 2005
From left: John Travolta and Princess Diana at the White House dinner. AP/REX/Shutterstock
Nancy and Ronald Reagan with <a href="" data-inlink="true">Prince Charles</a> and Princess Diana
Prince Charles and Princess Diana with President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan at a White House dinner on Nov. 9, 1985. Bettmann/Getty

Citing documents from the Reagan Library archives, Page writes that the names of the Bushes, then vice president and second lady, were crossed out by hand from both an initial invite list and an accompanying plan for them to “greet guests in the Red Room.”

The Bushes appeared only under a “Suggested additions” section on the second and third invite lists, according to Page.

On the third list, their names had again been “slashed out by pen.”

The snub did not go unnoticed, Page writes: “When deputy White House chief of staff Michael Deaver cautioned Nancy Reagan against excluding the vice president and his wife from the dinner, saying it would be a breach of protocol, she reportedly responded, ‘Just watch me.’ ”

The dinner — which memorably saw John Travolta take to the dance floor with Diana, who was wearing a velvet dress of deepest blue — was not exactly small. Guests included “an astronaut, a ballerina, an artist, an architect, the commissioner of baseball” and Mrs. Reagan’s stepdaughter, Page writes. But not the Bushes.

Years later, President Bush gave a brief answer when Page asked him why it seemed Mrs. Reagan had so disliked his wife.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”

In Page’s view, the two women “were so alike, and so different. … Somehow, too, each managed to feel superior to, and also threatened by, the other.” The 1980 presidential primary, when Bush unsuccessfully challenged Reagan, had not instilled any cause for warmth and the tension only continued.

Mrs. Reagan could feel insecure around Mrs. Bush, who was “part of a New England aristocracy that dated its direct ancestry to the Mayflower,” according to Page.

But Mrs. Reagan felt she was afforded no such welcome to America’s highest ranks. “Nancy was always viewed as a social-climbing parvenu,” PEOPLE reported in 1990.

RELATED VIDEO: George H. W. Bush Held His Dying Wife’s Hand All Day Before She Passed Away

“Nancy was disdainful of Barbara for her sturdy figure, her matronly clothes, and her blunt manner,” Page writes. (Some White House staffers told Page that Mrs. Bush could seem “imperious at times.”) For her part, “Barbara was disdainful of Nancy as brittle and shallow, and as a mother who had failed to forge a close or even functional relationship with her children.”

But their views on one another were hardly one-dimensional, according to Page’s book.

“Nancy … was envious of Barbara’s self-confidence, her social standing, and her close-knit family,” while the latter “admired Nancy’s slender figure, the grace with which she wore stylish fashions, and the open devotion she commanded from an adoring husband.”

It was that deep love that Mrs. Bush extolled in a brief statement when Mrs. Reagan died in March 2016, at 94.

She said then, in part: “Nancy Reagan was totally devoted to President Reagan, and we take comfort that they will be reunited once more.”

Privately, Mrs. Bush remembered her predecessor for other reasons, according to Page. In the lead-up to her husband’s inauguration, she wrote in her diary that “I will not treat her [incoming Second Lady Marilyn Quayle] as Nancy Reagan has treated me.”

Susan Page’s The Matriarch will be released Tuesday.

Related Articles