Get to Know America’s Other George Bushes

Posted June 20, 2005 at 6:33pm

Keep the adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” in mind when you come across Martha Boone Mattia’s book, “Conversations with George Bush.”

At first glance, one might assume that the book is about conversations with the 43rd president of the United States. However, the president is hardly mentioned throughout the book’s 376 pages.

“The title is a more interesting challenge than I realized,” Mattia said. “People feel strongly about the name. If you love George Bush and think you’re going to have interviews with the president, it’s not going to be what you’re hoping for. If you hate George Bush, you might not even pick [the book] up.”

Those who look past the title will discover the life stories of more than 30 individuals who share something with the president: his name.

“George Bush is the most powerful man of our generation, and it turns out that [George Bush] is a fairly common name,” Mattia said. “I didn’t set out to do a political book. I wanted to talk to ordinary folks.”

And so she did. Mattia traveled across the country — from Raleigh, N.C., to Laurel, Miss., to Midland, Texas, to Wilmington, Ohio, to Wells, Vt., and many places in between — in search of those who share their name, or some variation of their name, with the man who inhabits the White House.

“Most of them can’t hold a restaurant reservation and can’t get a pizza delivered, except for the one guy in Pennsylvania who is a pizza delivery man,” Mattia said as she explained some of the downsides to having such a well-known moniker. “It’s a hassle, but if they are supporters of the president, they by and large are honored.”

Dear George Bush …

While there might be a lot of George Bushes in the United States, it’s not necessarily an easy task to track them down.

Mattia said the research for her book — which included hand-written letters, phone calls and in-person interviews — took approximately two and a half years.

“I took a very methodical process,” Mattia said. “This being my first book, I didn’t have a natural entrée into people’s living rooms.”

Rather than just showing up on a stranger’s doorstep, Mattia said she went the “Dear George” route, penning hand-written letters to the many Bushes she located to tell them about her book idea and request an interview.

About a week after sending the letters, Mattia said she followed up with a phone call. Some said they were not interested, but others agreed to a phone interview.

“It usually ended up being two or three interviews, and only when they were comfortable after I wrung out all this information did I set up to come visit them at their homes or a place of their choosing,” Mattia said.

Of the 32 Bushes featured in the book, Mattia met with all but two in person. And traveling across the country to meet with people who essentially were strangers to her never bothered Mattia one bit.

“I was out in the middle of the woods to meet a man in a trailer that I didn’t know,” Mattia said of one of her interviews. “I didn’t even consider being afraid. From the first person I interviewed I felt it was going to be wonderful — it felt so right for me.”

There were, however, a few instances when Mattia said she would call her husband before meeting with someone to tell him her location “just in case.”

Tell Me About Yourself

Mattia said she had a set list of questions for each Bush she interviewed, and she always started off by asking where they were born and raised. She then inquired about key childhood memories, both good and bad.

“I was amazed at the degree to which people opened up,” Mattia said. “Once I had their childhood, just a question I thought would be innocent enough in the beginning, it seemed like they were quite willing to talk.”

Mattia routinely asked people were who their heroes are, what they dislike about themselves, who or what is the love or passion of their lives, what they fear, how their friends would describe them, what they like about America, what is their news source, what a typical day is for them and when was a time they were really surprised, among many others.

“I asked people, ‘On what occasion do you lie?’” Mattia said, adding that people might not have been honest with their answers to the question. “Typically men said they lie to make themselves look good, and women said they lie to make other people feel better.”

Following these hours-long interviews, Mattia said by the time all her questions were answered, “you know a lot about them.” In fact, Mattia knew more about one man she interviewed than his wife. Mattia said the man called her following their interview to ask when the book was going to be published because he said he had to tell his wife everything he never told her that he told Mattia.

There are 25 chapters that stem from long interviews with a handful of the Bushes who agreed to be in Mattia’s book. Throughout the chapters, the questions that Mattia asked appear in italics before the answer. She also sets the mood of the interviews, mentioning when sirens were in the background or when the interviewee got choked up or hesitated before answering.

In the middle of the book are 16 pages titled, “The Road to George Bush,” which features photographs and short write-ups about other Bushes that Mattia encountered, and they’re not all human. There’s a photo of a Maltese puppy named George W. Bush (he answers to “Dubby”) who belongs to an engaged couple with opposing political views. The dog, who was brought home in November, was named for the winner of the 2004 election.

Lessons Learned

In talking with so many people and listening to their life stories, Mattia said she now feels she better understands her country, which is what she hoped to accomplish.

“Having grown up outside of the United States, I didn’t understand my country as well as I would have liked to have,” Mattia said. “I felt a strong sense of patriotism, but I didn’t understand the country I was feeling patriotic about.”

Mattia was born in Texas but spent the majority of her childhood living in a handful of countries overseas, such as Libya, Nigeria, Australia and Switzerland. Her father worked for Texaco, which led to her family’s frequent relocation.

Mattia said she learned so much from everyone that she interviewed, and she said she hopes those that read the book will take away some of the same lessons.

I hope they “take away a respect for individuals that they encounter just in their everyday life,” Mattia said. “Every single life I looked at had these major turning points — you could be coming across somebody at these really big moments in their life.”

Also, Mattia said she found that the “American dream” is still very much alive.

“I found more belief here that you’re not stuck where you started in life than anywhere else in the world,” she said. “I believe we still have a leg up in that regard. The idea of the American dream is a very real thing.”

Mattia said some of the stories she came across were “Shakespearean, such great drama,” but she said that she isn’t sure she would have been as open as some people were with her.

“They were so indulgent to be so open, I’m not sure I would,” Mattia said, adding that she has followed up with many of the people she interviewed. “I just wanted to see how they were doing, I delved so deeply into their lives.”

For more information about Mattia or the book, log on to www.conversationswith georgebush.com.