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Ruth Marcus reviews Laura Bush's memoir, 'Spoken From the Heart'

She always seemed the more interesting Bush. In her new biography, she certainly seems the more mysterious.

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By Ruth Marcus
Sunday, May 2, 2010

SPOKEN FROM THE HEART

By Laura Bush

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Scribner. 456 pp. $30

Laura has always seemed the more interesting Bush. Certainly, the more mysterious.

With George W., what you see is what you get. He is not a complicated man. But Laura leaves you wondering about the layers beneath that serene exterior. What is she thinking? What private rebellions are simmering, what resentments submerged? What forged the bond, seemingly as strong as it was unlikely, between the librarian who named her cat Dewey, after the decimal system, and the jock-turned-oilman who was soon to turn, inevitably, to the family business of politics?

Laura Bush's autobiography, "Spoken From the Heart," begins promisingly enough for anyone hoping to penetrate that surface. Early on, Bush describes how her mother, like Laura an only child, would laughingly explain that she would have been "insulted" if her parents had had more children. "But that is only part of the story," Bush writes, "the way when you dig down through the dry West Texas flatlands you discover the fossilized remnants of shells and underwater life, what remains of the ancient, vanished Permian sea."

Bush would later learn that her grandmother had lost two children, born prematurely, or so her mother thought. "But she never truly knew because no one spoke of it. You might talk about the wind and the weather, but troubles you swallowed deep down inside." This habit of suppressing the unpleasant, linked to the harshness of life on the West Texas plains, was ingrained in Bush early on. Not bad training for a political wife.

Laura's life was also shaped by the enforced solitude of being an only child. Her mother lost three babies -- a "late miscarriage" was the accepted euphemism, even about a little brother who lived a few days -- and young Laura was keenly aware of her role in the "tightly knit unit of three." Perhaps for the girl who felt "the particular loneliness of being an only child among the throngs at a crowded amusement park," whose mother sent her on outings she called a "solo picnic," the sprawling, boisterous Bush family held a particular appeal.

Laura had her own tragedy -- The Accident -- that was simultaneously defining and unacknowledged. "So many lives were wrecked that night at that corner," Bush writes. She was 17, driving with a girlfriend to the movies, down a dark road and through a stop sign that she didn't see until it was too late. In the other car was classmate Mike Douglas -- not her boyfriend, she notes tartly, though some reporters got it wrong -- but a close friend.

"It was Mother and Daddy who told me that Mike had been driving the other car, after I was home, in my own bed," Bush writes. "But by then, I already heard the sounds of his parents' choked sobs ricocheting in the far recesses of my mind."

This was an era of avoidance, not closure: Bush did not go to the funeral, never spoke to Mike's parents. It was an event that no one ever brought up -- Bush's own daughters didn't know until an officer on her husband's gubernatorial security detail mentioned it -- but that seems never far from Bush's mind. When she writes about her wedding date, she describes it as "one day after my birthday, one day before the anniversary of the awful accident." When Laura and George go to the polls to vote for him for governor, "standing there as we entered the polling place was Kim Hammond, the boy who had been a pallbearer for Mike Douglas." Another fossil, buried but indelibly marked.

Bush is good, very good (with the help of writer Lyric Winik) at evoking Texas in the '50s and '60s, the bygone days when "we could ride our bikes wherever we wanted and sneak out in our pajamas because Midland was a safe town and we were safe within its limits," as well as the too-slowly changing times: In 1960, the new high school was named for Robert E. Lee. When Bush went to a Bob Dylan concert during her sophomore year at Southern Methodist University, "I wore a little wool skirt suit that I had bought in El Paso the summer before with Mother at the Amen Wardy department store." Laura and her roommate dressed up in jeans and beads to go see "real hippies" in Dallas.


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