In April of 2014, I was invited to Houston as a guest author for the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy fundraiser, along with two well-known male authors and a male journalist who’d written a book about a Navy SEAL. At a small luncheon at a private home before the big event, I was seated next to Barbara Bush, who was warmly intimate and surprisingly funny. In my nervousness, I knocked a cherry tomato onto her pristine white slacks. She smiled wryly and said, “Seriously, Christina?”
After the luncheon, it was time to take group photos. Barbara Bush and I stood and chatted for a few minutes while the photographer readied his camera. President George H.W. Bush, whom I had not yet met, sat in his wheelchair in the center of the room, while others were arranged around him for photos in various groupings. When it came time for my husband and me to be photographed with him, President Bush beckoned me close.
“Hello,” I said. “It’s truly an honor to meet you.”
He cocked his head at me for a moment, then said, “You’re beautiful.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“You’re a writer.”
“You wanna know my favorite book?” he whispered. I had to lean close to hear him.
“Yes, what is it?”
By now the photographer was readying the shot. My husband stood on one side of the wheelchair, and I stood on the other. President Bush put his arm around me, low on my back. His comic timing was impeccable. “David Cop-a-feel,” he said, and squeezed my butt, hard, just as the photographer snapped the photo. Instinctively, I swiped his hand away.
It’s right there in the official photograph. President Bush laughing at his joke (like a mischievous boy, I thought at the time); me, struggling to keep the smile on my face. My husband, David, on the other side of President Bush’s wheelchair, is smiling broadly. He doesn’t know what just happened.
(When reached for comment, Bush spokesman Jim McGrath directed Slate to a statement he released in response to allegations earlier this week that read: “At age 93, President Bush has been confined to a wheelchair for roughly five years, so his arm falls on the lower waist of people with whom he takes pictures. To try to put people at ease, the president routinely tells the same joke — and on occasion, he has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner. Some have seen it as innocent; others clearly view it as inappropriate. To anyone he has offended, President Bush apologizes most sincerely.”)
After the photo op, my husband and I were whisked out the door. At the curb, a woman who introduced herself as a friend of the Bush family was waiting to drive us back to the hotel. Once we were on our way, I told David what had happened. I was still so surprised that it didn’t occur to me to keep it secret. His mouth fell open. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Our driver, who was stopped at a light, sat there for a moment, then leaned back and looked at us. “I do trust you will be … discreet,” she said.
Her comment wasn’t menacing. But in that moment I thought: She has heard this before. The people around President Bush are accustomed to doing damage control. There must be many of us, I remember thinking. And now I know there are.
I’ve heard the argument about women who don’t step forward until years later. People criticize them for not having said something at the time. I’m one of them, for several reasons. First, the only thing that made this incident unusual was that it involved an ex-president. Most women I know have experienced this kind of joking and groping dozens of times. You become inured to it. It happens, you try to forget about it, and later you exchange war stories with other women.
Second, I didn’t want to face the scrutiny I knew an accusation like this would bring. Exactly one year earlier, at age 49, I’d finished a harrowing series of treatments for an invasive form of breast cancer. My hair had only just grown back. I was vulnerable enough; I didn’t want to face the consequences of making such an accusation. (Remember Trump’s comment that a woman wasn’t pretty enough to be sexually harassed by him?)
I also didn’t want to seem opportunistic, as if I was reporting the former president’s transgression for publicity purposes. (Although, ugh, who wants this kind of publicity?) I didn’t want to collaterally damage the reputation of the literacy foundation, which does wonderful work. Most of all, I didn’t want to be perceived as being cruel to a harmless, aging former president with a reputation for courtly gentility.
But now, with two women talking about the same behavior—even the same crude joke—I feel compelled to step forward. Three and a half years ago President Bush might not have been as mentally acute, but over the course of the weekend I saw him actively engaged in conversation and to all appearances controlling his impulses. He made a choice to do what he did to me.
This is what’s most galling: I was at that event as a guest author, alongside three male authors. I was groped. As far as I know, they were not. What happened to me at a literary luncheon with a former president would never have happened to them. At the very moment when I was feeling honored to be recognized for my work and to raise money for this important organization that I believe in, President Bush made clear to me that because I am a woman, I can be objectified, sexualized, reduced to a body part.
In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens writes, “It’s in vain to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present.” That’s why I’m sharing this experience today. I wasn’t traumatized. I’m not angry. But it shouldn’t have happened. I hope all these stories that women are finally sharing about their experiences will begin to effect change.