If anyone can grow up to be President of the United States, anyone can be First Lady, too.
Still, neither George W. Bush nor Laura Welch had much inkling of what they were getting into when they married. Laura was a school librarian and George lived in a world of sterile apartments, alcohol and dead-end jobs. They wanted to jump-start their lives, but unlike the ambitious Clintons, they were hardly aiming for the White House.
In her memoir, “Spoken From the Heart,” Laura Bush writes as vividly of her upbringing in the bleak and unforgiving oil- patch towns of West Texas as Buzz Bissinger did in his classic “Friday Night Lights.” As her life becomes more public in the later chapters, her observations become less keen -- or perhaps she just becomes unwilling to share them. Dick Who, Rumsfeld What and that round bald guy said to be Bush’s Brain, Karl Rove -- who he?
The book offers a stark look at Bush’s loneliness growing up in a hardscrabble town with more oil rigs than trees, where the dust and wind were so constant that clothes hung on the line were caked in dirt before they got dry.
The Welch family never struck it rich but her father worked two jobs and they did well enough. Yet there was an undertow of sorrow left by the loss of three children, two to late-term miscarriages and one who lived only a few days. Bush remembers staring at her little brother through the nursery window. Later, at an amusement park or on a picnic with her loving parents, she looked longingly at the families with all the kids.
Love of Reading
Loneliness made Laura Bush. It gave birth to her lifelong devotion to reading, which became a career and a cause. A decorous and organized woman, she arranged her shelves by the Dewey Decimal System. (Those shelves ran heavily to books about Nancy Drew, another only child entranced by her father.)
She talks for the first time about a deadly car accident she had as a teenager. The boy she killed was a friend from school, and it was her fault for running a stop sign. By nature reticent, she could never bring herself to call upon the grieving parents to acknowledge the awful hole she opened in their lives.
It’s no surprise that her greatest joy was having twin girls after years of trying. Hers is a traditional home -- the wife immersed in kith and kin, the husband in making a living and, later, politics. She could be forgiven for not knowing George would be the Bush son to inherit his father’s mantle. He was the scamp of the litter, such a late bloomer his own parents were astonished when he won the governorship of Texas before the “good” son Jeb won in Florida.
Maybe that astonishment explains the shot she takes at her mother-in-law. While you will read in vain to find out what kind of guy Dick Cheney really is, for those still wondering about Barbara Bush, here’s a small treat:
“Bar” is “ferociously tart-tongued” and has insulted nearly all her friends. When people come up to her and say they know her, she snaps back, “No, you don’t. You don’t know me.”
Once Bush becomes First Lady, travelogue and social diary take over -- world leaders seen, countries visited, overnight guests and over-the-top dinners. There are some revelations: Hillary Clinton wondered aloud why they called it Hillarycare when it was her husband’s health care bill and confided that she wished she’d never gotten an office in the West Wing.
Glimpses of politicians behaving badly are scarce and about the other side. Nancy Pelosi said mean things yet Laura Bush still invited her to a State Dinner when the Queen of England visited. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he’d stop calling Bush names (“loser” and “liar”) but he didn’t.
Cheney’s Hunting Accident
Oddly, the one time Bush asserted herself was about a trivial matter. In the middle of the night, she called Chief of Staff Andy Card to have him tell Cheney to quit stonewalling about how he shot a friend on a hunting trip. It worked. Cheney started talking.
Imagine if she’d called about weapons of mass destruction. Most people prefer their First Ladies Laura-like, and they will love this book. Laura Bush will never make trouble or ask for attention. Even as she writes about a more interesting life than she ever imagined when the “old maid of Midland married Midland’s most eligible bachelor,” she gives the feeling that she would just as soon be reading about it as living it.
“Spoken From the Heart” will be published on May 4 by Scribner (456 pages, $30). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)