Why I love Laura Bush

I'm a staunch liberal who hates George W. And yet I think his wife is sincere, down-to-earth, smart -- and a role model for all Americans.


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Curtis Sittenfeld
January 29, 2004 4:49PM (UTC)

I'm a 28-year-old woman, a registered Democrat, and a staunch enough liberal that I take would-be epithets such as "flaming," "knee-jerk" and "bleeding-heart" as compliments. I believe that George Bush's policies are at best misguided and at worst evil. And yet I love Laura Bush. In fact, there is no public figure I admire more.

Looking back, I can see that the love that dare not speak its name came over me gradually. In January 2001, I found watching George W. Bush's inauguration on television so surreal and horrifying that I had to call a friend, and the two of us just sat there in our separate apartments, not really talking except to say, "I can't believe this. Can you believe this?"

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A few months passed, George Bush and Co. settled into the White House, and in the June 2001 issue of Vogue, I read a profile of Laura Bush in which it was revealed that she is "indifferent" to clothes and shopping; she finds giving interviews "kind of boring"; and when an acquaintance saw her in line at the post office while her husband was governor of Texas and asked what she was doing, she calmly replied, "I'm mailing a letter." Then an October 2002 article in the New York Times described the White House symposiums Laura hosted at which complicated books and topics were discussed and to which writers who clearly disagreed with George Bush's politics were invited. Multiple authors -- including biographer Arnold Rampersad and historian Patricia Nelson Limerick -- told the Times that they had assumed beforehand that Laura was unfamiliar with both their work and their views; they had been humbled and impressed to learn they were wrong. In spite of myself, I found all of these details extremely endearing.

Now, with the publication of "The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush," by Washington Post reporter Ann Gerhart, I finally feel ready to share my love of Laura with the world. The book is generally flattering -- though Gerhart does take Laura Bush to task for "spoiling" her daughters and not being a more "effective" first lady -- and is filled with anecdotes that illustrate Laura Bush's integrity, unpretentiousness and intelligence. Admittedly, anyone who doesn't already admire the first lady isn't likely to be drawn in by either the book's retro-sounding title or the cover, which features a baby blue background and a photo of Laura gazing up at her husband while he speaks. It looks, at first glance, like bedtime reading for someone's 70-year-old Republican grandmother. When I purchased it at Kramerbooks, an independent bookstore a few miles from my home in Washington, the cashiers seemed so disdainful that I was compelled to announce, "It's for research!" One of them, a woman with a crew cut and all-black clothing, simply looked at the book and shook her head without speaking.

My (decidedly liberal) friends are just as appalled. My friend Jamie said the fact that I publicly admit I admire Laura Bush is evidence that Republican operatives have planted a chip in my brain. When I mentioned to my friend Emily that, according to People magazine, Laura recently read the same short story collection Emily and I were reading -- "The Shell Collector" by Anthony Doerr -- Emily exclaimed, "She's not one of us! She's on the dark side!" My friend Matt said, "I hate Laura Bush because she's culpable, and she's culpable because she's intelligent." Much of the public frustration with Laura seems to stem from her perceived passivity, especially in light of widespread assumption that she's significantly more liberal than George Bush. But what, I asked the people I know, is she supposed to do? Their answers ranged from "drive a wooden stake through her husband's skull" to "poison him."

Clearly, liberals' visceral loathing of George Bush transfers into a loathing of Laura as well. But that transference strikes me as reductive and even sexist. Because here's the thing: Both the new biography about Laura Bush and Laura Bush herself are a lot more complicated than they initially appear.

As the Gerhart book proves, Laura Bush is a true role model. She's smart and curious about the world. She's sincere and down-to-earth and compassionate. She's both confident and modest, she knows who she is, and she doesn't try to prove anything. I suspect the reason so many people I know believe her to be fake is that she doesn't aggressively demonstrate her authenticity.

But to read any part of "The Perfect Wife" -- which is based on over 100 interviews, including several Gerhart conducted with Laura herself -- is to realize that Laura Bush is the opposite of fake. In one anecdote Gerhart relates, it is December 2000 and the Texas Book Festival, an annual event started by Laura in 1995, has kicked off at the same time that the Supreme Court is deliberating on the presidential election recount. The day after the court rules in Bush's favor -- that is, the day after he officially becomes president of the United States, while he is preparing to deliver his acceptance speech on television -- Laura, who earlier gave the Book Festival's opening speech, attends the festival's wrap-up meeting.

"At that very moment of this unprecedented election being decided, history was about to change," Stephen Harrigan, a novelist and festival organizer, told Gerhart. "[Laura's] life was about to change. And she was sitting there listening to how many T-shirts we had sold, and asking were those tote bags moving well, because we would need to order them again." What I love about this story is its implication that Laura is respectful of other people, that she takes her responsibilities seriously, and that she maintains a life separate from her husband -- what Gerhart calls Laura's "stealth independence." And these rare, impressive qualities are shown again and again.

As a young woman, she purposely sought out poor, nonwhite schools to work in as a teacher and librarian, and as a political wife, when Laura visits classrooms, "Hers is not the usual condescending conversation with children that is actually aimed at the adults listening in," Julia Reed noted in the Vogue profile. Gerhart similarly observes that "there is never a child who hugs her too tightly. She is not a woman to worry about getting a nose wiped on her silk sleeve. Over and over, I have seen her intuitively drop into a teacher's crouch so she can look right into their faces."

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And then there are the dozens of smaller daily examples of Laura's unpretentiousness and modesty: When George Bush was governor, Laura's favorite place to hang out during parties at the mansion was outside with the dogs; she'd shop at Wal-Mart and fly Southwest Airlines to visit her friends around Texas (friends who are, notably, political liberals she has known since grade school); her favorite outfit is jeans and white shirts and her ideal restaurant is a cheap Mexican place. In other words, Judy Dean has nothing on Laura Bush in the squished cupcake department. Laura Bush cannot stand the title first lady and instructs her staff to refer to her as Mrs. Bush or Laura Bush. During her first year in the White House, Gerhart writes that "even after she had walked hundreds of times into rooms where people cheered, she would look over her shoulder involuntarily, to see who they might really be applauding."

To be sure, all of this is excellent P.R. fodder, and certainly the Bush camp has tried to exploit it. "She cuts right through the posturing and positioning," her husband once told a New York Times reporter. "America's starved for something real. And that's what she brings." But Laura, who is known to closely monitor media coverage of her husband, does not seem to care all that much how she herself comes across. Revealingly, she did once object when she was quoted by newspapers as saying to an audience that, as a former librarian, she could tell them to "shut up" when she had actually used the far more refined "hush up." But more often, Laura's "management" of her own image seems to waver between strikingly unvain and downright uncooperative. She often must be prompted by others to discuss her work, such as her role in obtaining $215 million for a reading readiness program in Texas. "This is as startling as it is refreshing, in Washington," Gerhart writes, "a city where people fall over each other to take credit for things they didn't do."

Gerhart also touches on the first lady's relationship with the media in the book's discussion of Laura as a mother. The depiction of the Bush twins as obnoxious and indulged is, not surprisingly, the part of the book that has attracted the most media attention, but it left me unpersuaded. The anecdote about then-20-year-old Jenna Bush calling her father right before he was to deliver the post-9/11 State of the Union address to announce she'd lost the sticker for her car -- an anecdote clearly meant to exemplify Jenna's self-absorption -- was, to me, so funny and normal that I called my own father to tell him about it. Of the White House's "no comment" stance on the twins, Gerhart writes, "The problem with such a communication strategy was that the only public image of the twins was a highly unflattering one [e.g., Jenna being cited for underage drinking]. If they were feeding the homeless, or tutoring poor children, or writing impressive senior theses, no one would ever know."

But if the Bush twins were feeding the homeless or tutoring poor children or writing impressive senior theses, they would know -- and more to the point, so would the homeless, or the poor children, or their thesis advisors. The notion is widespread in our culture that if something isn't documented by the media, it didn't happen. Laura Bush's refusal to buy into that notion, or to sacrifice her daughters for it, is all the more impressive given her powerful position.

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More personally, I suspect my admiration for Laura Bush is tied to the fact that we share major interests: I teach ninth grade English and I like that Laura was a teacher herself and continues to advocate for education. I write fiction, too -- my first novel will be published next year -- and I love that Laura Bush is a voracious reader of fiction. In fact, I see this as the defining aspect of her personality.

It's the reason I believe she's smart: For one thing, her favorite book is "The Brothers Karamazov." Besides that, for Laura Bush, as for most people who aren't professors of English, reading fiction is ostensibly useless and therefore without motive; it can only be something she does for pleasure. Her love of fiction is also what allows me to accept the contradictions in her life that other people find either mystifying or just appalling: How can she really be a good person if she's married to him? How can she be married to him if she really is more liberal than he is? But ambiguities are the foundation of fiction; it is only in the world of politics that they're met with hostility.

Literary fiction acknowledges the discrepancy between how we act and what we feel. When I teach creative writing to teenagers, I tell them to think about going with their parents to a party. The people are boring, and the house smells bad, and you just want to leave. In real life, you say to your hosts, "Thanks so much! I had such a great time!" But fiction admits how boring and smelly it was.

Reading a lot of fiction can, I believe, make a person expect the nonfictional world to operate by fiction's rules: There will be revelations and climaxes, people will speak eloquently, events will progress coherently and conclude satisfyingly. And, of course, massive contradictions -- personal, moral, situational -- can exist quite comfortably. A year ago, a symposium Laura Bush had organized on the works of Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman was canceled after some contemporary poets who had been invited revealed plans to read poetry protesting the impending war in Iraq; the entire symposium series was, effectively, brought to an end.

An argument can be made that Laura was naive to believe she could smoothly import lefty writers into a right-wing White House. But I actually think it was the poets -- specifically, Sam Hamill, founder of the Copper Canyon Press, who organized the protest poetry -- who were naive, and who shot themselves in the foot. I bet Hamill could have gotten away with showing up and reading antiwar poetry, but how could Laura, as first lady, let him do so knowing about his plans ahead of time? Instead of chatting with reporters before the symposium, he should have been more subtle -- he should have taken a lesson in stealth activism from Laura herself, that mastermind of stealth independence.

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The central question raised by Laura Bush, Gerhart told me in an interview, is this: "You didn't do anything to get the megaphone, you didn't seek to have the megaphone, your association to the megaphone is purely derivative power -- but if somebody hands you the megaphone, are you supposed to pick it up and yell through it?" Gerhart herself answers the question by saying, "I would argue that you are."

But I think it's trickier than that, and this is something else that fiction acknowledges: that there is plenty in the world a person can literally do without realistically being able to do it all. We are constricted by manners and appearances and obligations, and I suspect that if Laura Bush told reporters that, say, she had opposed the war in Iraq, such a statement would do more to make the public question the stability of the Bush marriage than it would to support peace efforts. (I am aware, by the way, of no evidence to suggest she did oppose the war.) Could Laura Bush do more for women's rights and poor kids and the environment? Sure. But I'd say that she already does more than she gets credit for.

In addition to her work on early childhood cognitive development, teacher preparation and recruitment, and women's heart disease, Laura, Gerhart indicates, actually does stay on top of and weigh in on issues behind the scenes. Talking to an Associated Press reporter, Laura once seemed to inadvertently reveal that she was far more familiar than anyone expected with the exact amount her husband's administration had refused to give the United Nations Population Fund. More publicly, her National Book Festival last October brought 70,000 people (one of whom was me) to the Mall in Washington to hear various writers. After Sept. 11, she appeared on five television networks and, as Gerhart told me, "She was very comforting and nurturing. And while that seems like real bland bromides to a lot of people, all the men of the administration were running around scaring everybody half to death. She's the one who says, 'Let's be sensible. Let's turn off the television set -- that freaks kids out.'"

There's also what Laura doesn't do: function as a mindless Republican mouthpiece. Gerhart recalls that in "the 2002 congressional campaign, she changed a speech at the last minute to remove attacks on the candidate's opponent, a Texas Democrat she admired, whom she had worked with on education issues." And I'd argue that Laura derives some of her power from using it sparingly; when she told Katie Couric in January 2001 that she did not believe Roe vs. Wade should be overturned, it attracted attention partly because it was the only time she has commented publicly on abortion.

There is a final reason I find Laura Bush both charming and fascinating, and it might seem, from the outside, like the most peculiar reason of all: To an uncanny degree, Laura Bush's own life resembles a great novel. Big, dramatic things have happened to her, certain themes have recurred, and she is such an easy heroine to root for -- smart and nice but just flawed enough (she still sneaks cigarettes!) to remain likable. A often-repeated maxim of writing workshops, typically attributed to Flannery O'Connor, is that a story's ending should feel both surprising and inevitable. For surprising and inevitable, try this:

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Laura is born in West Texas in 1946, a much-loved only child who grows up on Humble Avenue. At the age of 17, in a tragic accident, she hits another car being driven by a handsome, athletic high school classmate, a boy she's believed to have had a crush on. She is single until the age of 30 -- relatively old for 1970s Texas. When friends want to set her up with George Bush, she is reluctant because "I thought he was someone real political, and I wasn't interested." But already, they have been circling each other for years without meeting -- they attended the same Midland junior high for seventh grade and lived, as 20-somethings, in the same apartment complex in Houston. They meet, fall in love quickly and have a six-week courtship and a six-week engagement. She marries the son of a former congressman, ambassador to China, and CIA director in a "two-piece dress she had bought just days before the wedding, off the rack."

They are newlyweds during his campaign for Congress in 1978. He loses, and it does not appear, for many years, that he's all that ambitious or really that inclined toward politics. She encourages him to curb his heavy drinking, and he gives it up altogether at the age of 40. She is ambivalent about his running for governor, and he becomes governor. She definitely does not want him to run for president, but what better way is there to ensure that something unlikely will happen than not to want it? Ten months after their arrival in the White House, her husband's administration, and the country, face one of the worst crises in American history.

In the first version of the Laura Bush novel that exists in my head, Laura married George because she wanted to have a family and they were the last two single people left in their extended social circle. (She has jokingly said as much.) My doubts about how much she actually liked her husband made her sympathetic to me; she had settled, but for ordinary, understandable reasons -- who wants to grow old alone? -- and if her decision to marry him brought unwanted consequences, with their life together becoming increasingly political and public, she was stoic about them. However, any good novel, even an imaginary one, should contain surprises for its author, and after reading "The Perfect Wife," I think George and Laura Bush have one of the healthiest marriages I can imagine, that they genuinely enjoy each other's company and are at their best together. He makes her laugh, and she calms him down and looks after him -- according to Gerhart, when she leaves town, she calls one of his fraternity brothers to come stay at the White House so he won't get lonely.

As a Democrat, I cannot completely reconcile my admiration for Laura Bush with her marriage to someone whose professional decisions are affecting so many people in ways I believe to be negative. And even the strength of the Bushes' marriage is, no doubt, partly a result of their privileged life and the fact that Laura hasn't had to work -- she's had time to be "the perfect wife." But I'm still impressed. As for the cover of "The Perfect Wife," where Laura is gazing up at George Bush while he speaks -- take a closer look. It's not a vacant, worshipful expression on her face at all. "She looks like she's really keenly paying attention," says Gerhart, who selected the photograph. "It's open to interpretation [and] that's what I liked about it."


Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novels "Prep" and "American Wife."

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