When Laura Bush became first lady ten years ago, she was accused of being the perfect antidote to Hillary Clinton whose activism on health care and other policy issues triggered criticism from both Congress and everyday Americans. Calm, articulate and politically careful, Laura Bush was, by comparison, well … boring! But she had a secret weapon — she was wry and engaging and especially amusing when it came to poking fun at her husband.
At the 2005 Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, D.C., she said, “George always says he's delighted to come to these press dinners. Baloney. He's usually in bed by now.
“I'm not kidding.
“I said to him the other day, ‘George, if you really want to end tyranny in the world, you're going to have to stay up later.’ I am married to the president of the United States, and here's our typical evening: Nine o'clock, Mr. Excitement here is sound asleep, and I'm watching Desperate Housewives — with Lynne Cheney. Ladies and gentlemen, I am a desperate housewife. I mean, if those women on that show think they're desperate, they oughta be with George.”
At times vividly, at other times more thinly, as if working from an appointments calendar, the former first lady takes us inside the boom-and-bust years in Midland, Texas, growing up as the lonely only child of a man who helped liberate a concentration camp during the war; the bookshelf years as teacher and librarian, immersed in education; marriage to George and her life as a busy mother of twins; life in the Texas governor’s mansion and then, eventually, the White House; and today, a time when she can “exhale.” Her new book, Spoken from the Heart (Scribner, $30), has already vaulted to the top of bestseller lists.
Behind the always-perfect hair and makeup (which, by the way, she paid for herself during her White House years) are the battle scars which she reveals sometimes with remorse, but mostly without apology.
It’s no secret that during her high-school years, Laura Bush drove her car through a stop sign one night and plowed into another car, killing that car’s occupant. The victim was a good friend of hers, a young man named Mike Douglas.
The accident in the fall of 1963 was a tragic event for many in the community, but Laura, who suffered a broken ankle, blackened eyes and other injuries in the crash, was so traumatized that she buried her feelings. She didn’t reach out to the Douglas family to express her sorrow, and her parents didn’t think she should attend the funeral, and so she didn’t. Then, when she returned to school and re-entered the stream of life, she thought she’d simply go about her business.
All these years later, here’s what emerges: “I felt guilty, very guilty. In fact, I still do. It is a guilt I will carry for the rest of my life … I can never absolve myself of the guilt. The guilt isn’t simply from Mike dying. The guilt is from all the implications, from the way those few seconds spun out and enfolded so many other lives. The reverberations seem to go on forever, like the ripples from an unsinkable stone.”
There is a rather wonderful scene in which Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton share a woman-to-woman moment, after George W. Bush was declared president and as the Clintons were preparing to exit the White House. Laura Bush describes meeting Mrs. Clinton at the South Portico entrance.
“Hillary was gracious and forthcoming,” says Laura. “There is a particular kinship that develops between the spouses of political leaders. It is a kinship I felt regardless of political persuasion, and I felt it with Hillary, as she began our tour of the public house and the private living quarters.”
The two women spent some time together, and then came this moment, as they stood together in the first lady’s dressing room: “Hillary paused and remembered something that Barbara Bush had shown her, eight years before. ‘Your mother-in-law stood right here and told me that from this window, you can see straight down into the Rose Garden and also over to the Oval Office, and you can watch what’s going on.’
“I did look out that window sometimes over the years,” says Laura Bush, clearly pleased to have gotten the inside scoop, no matter the source. And she was always careful, she says, “to stand just inside the frame so that no one would spot me. If George was doing an event in the Rose Garden, I could see it from the window and live on the television at the same time.”
When countless members of the public, the press or the other political party poked fun at her husband for everything they disagreed with about his tenure — including why we got into the Iraq War — How did Laura Bush react?
“As a family we have listened to some of the worst things that can be said about us or someone we love, and never has our own love dimmed. But what we endured is a meanness of spirit, a viciousness and a cruelty that I hope no political family will ever be subjected to again.”
She adds, “I survived it because George did. He is not a self-pitying man.” She said personal criticism of a president “demeans honest debate; it debases the office of the presidency; and just as important, it does little to produce good decisions or good policy.”
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Laura Bush to Sign Book at Husband’s Childhood Home (My West Texas News)
Laura Bush Opens Up About Crash (New York Times)
Laura Bush Memoir: Iraq, Gay Marriage and Overseas Intrigue (Politico)
Laura Bush Memoir Is Latest in a Long Line of First Lady Lit (Huffington Post)