In memoir, Laura Bush reveals painful events during husband's presidency

By Ann Gerhart
Thursday, April 29, 2010; C01

One of the persistent questions about Laura Bush always has been whether she is more liberal than her husband.

In her new memoir, "Spoken From the Heart," the former first lady refers to this line of inquiry as "an odd sort of Washington parlor game" that wearies her. So the answer will not be found in this book, which is scheduled to be released on May 4. The Washington Post bought a copy Wednesday at a local bookstore.

She recounts the moment when Katie Couric asked her if she believed the law permitting abortion should be overturned, and she expands her answer from then only slightly:

"We are a nation of different generations and beliefs, seeing issues through different eras and different eyes. While cherishing life, I have always believed that abortion is a private decision, and there, no one can walk in anyone else's shoes," she writes.

On gay marriage, she writes that before the beginning of the 2004 presidential campaign, "I had talked to George about not making gay marriage a significant issue. We have, I reminded him, a number of close friends who are gay or whose children are gay. But at that moment I could never have imagined what path this issue would take and where it would lead."

It led, of course, to a divisiveness which persists in American politics. In her memoir, Bush does not dwell on that. Instead, she writes with dismay of Sen. John Kerry answering a presidential debate question about the subject by mentioning that Vice President Cheney's daughter, Mary, is a lesbian. "Beside me, Jenna and Barbara gasped. They were utterly stunned that a candidate would use an opponent's child in a debate."

She's none too happy with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for the mean things they said about her husband, President Bush. She calls out the House leader for calling Bush "dangerous" and the Senate majority leader for calling him "a loser" and "a liar."

"Subsequently, in a private, one-on-one meeting in the White House Cabinet Room, Reid said to George that he would stop calling him names. But he didn't stop," she writes.

Nevertheless, the Bushes continued to invite both to the White House for events "repeatedly," and "when the Queen of England visited in the spring of 2007, Pelosi danced in the White House in her long ball gown."

She has a few other scores to settle with the press, and she names names:

The New York Times' Jason DeParle interviewed her "in a tone that was adversarial and more than a touch offensive." Jim Vandehei, then at The Washington Post, appalled her in Egypt when, during a presentation by the director of the Giza pyramid excavation project, he "elbowed his way to the front of the press pool, climbed onto the pyramid plateau and began shouting out questions" about Egyptian politics. As an ever-watchful monitor of how her husband was portrayed in the press, she confronted Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times for using in a story an anecdote about George W. Bush at Yale that Laura Bush writes wasn't true. "While the truth may not be as interesting, it is the truth," she chides.

Unflinching honesty

There is some startling stuff in here, perhaps more startling to me, who spent much of my time as a reporter covering Bush and as a writer researching her biography, searching for a shard or two of information that might reveal more about this intensely reticent and unassuming woman.

The memoir, which was written with Lyric Winik, who is married to historian Jay Winik, passes the first-sentence test beautifully: "What I remember is the glass."

It is the glass of a hospital nursery window, and little Laura Welch is 2 1/2 years old, and her newborn brother is lying on the other side. He would live but a few days and be spoken of as "a late miscarriage," even though he had a birth certificate. In this first chapter, Bush lays out the isolation of pain not spoken. "In those times, in West Texas, in the 1950s, we did not talk about those things."

And there are some pointed choices and some unflinching honesty.

She writes in the book's early pages that her father made a pact with God that if he survived World War II, he'd never own a gun again, and he didn't. That made Harold Welch a man unusual for West Texas.

Her guilt for flying through a stop sign at the wheel of her father's car and killing one of her close high school friends persists, she writes of the car crash when she was 17. "And the guilt isn't simply from Mike dying. . . . There are the hard, inner circles wrapping around Mike's parents and Mike's sister, whose lives were changed and ruined." There is guilt for having never paid a call to the parents. She "lost my faith that November, lost it for many, many years," she writes, and she doesn't refer to it coming back until after her twin daughters were born.

Of her husband's drinking, she writes that he indulged in the three Bs, like many Midland, Tex., men: a bourbon before dinner, a beer with dinner and Benedictine and brandy, a B&B, after dinner. Then came the fourth: He became a bore. But she never said, "It's either Jim Beam or me," she writes.

"I was not going to leave George, and I wasn't going to let him leave me with twins," Bush writes. She just let him know she was "disappointed" in him. He stopped drinking when he turned 40.

The 2000 election

Her account of the tense and dramatic days after the 2000 election reveals nothing of the interior legal maneuvering of both sides or even what she knew. "The ultimate decision was out of our hands," she writes.

She has empathetic words for Hillary Rodham Clinton. Their kinship was immediate, Bush writes, when they met in late December 1999.

"She even told me that, if she had it to do all over again, she would not have had an office in the West Wing, that she seldom used it after the healthcare debate ended. And I do know many women who wonder to this day why it is still referred to as Hillary's healthcare plan, rather than the Clinton healthcare plan, when it was done under the auspices of her husband, the president."

She writes of her daughter Jenna's arrest for underage drinking while a student at the University of Texas: "That night in Austin was just dumb, in the way that so many nineteen-year-olds are dumb. I remember a line from The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, a series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith, in which his main character, Precious Ramotswe, says: "Twenty-one-year-olds are so stupid. And there are so many of them."

She confides that her comedy routine that brought down the house at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2005 mystified some audiences overseas. She spoofed the first couple's nights together -- "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." And "for years . . . in hushed voices, foreign leaders or their spouses would ask me, 'Are you really a desperate housewife?' "

Direct action

Here is a rare instance in which she reveals herself taking direct action:

When Dick Cheney accidentally shot a hunting partner during a quail-shooting expedition in Texas, it was nearly four days before the White House responded. Laura Bush, who was returning from Italy, asked her chief of staff to call White House Chief of Staff Andy Card in the middle of the night. "I wanted to urge the vice president's office to state the facts, to be open, and to answer all questions. There was no need to say anything but the truth. Silence, which was all that was coming from the West Wing, was worse."

Pilfering is a problem at the White House; guests sometimes walked out with hand towels stuffed in their jackets or purses; flatware disappeared from tables. "One prominent television personality [mmmm . . . who?!] was known for having a collection of White House paper hand towels, monogrammed with the presidential seal, in her powder room. She had 'accumulated' them when she came for interviews."

And here, too, are tales of security lapses and brazen misbehavior:

One woman shows up at the White House, placed on the guest list by a Senate office, and three federal bench warrants pop up with her Social Security number in the Secret Service database. The woman insists on draping her fur over her handcuffed hands as she is led away. A school aide touring the residence with a group of preschoolers is detained for being in the country illegally. Performers open up big black cases and start selling jewelry to other performers right in the Vermeil Room.

In 432 pages, there are three brief mentions of Barack Obama.

And there are only two sentences raising the curtain on the 44th presidency:

"As in so many years past, Inauguration Day 2009 was cold. It was also historic, as the nation swore in its first African-American president."

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