By Ruth Marcus
Sunday, May 2, 2010; B01
SPOKEN FROM THE HEART
By Laura Bush
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.
But like the West Texas soil, Bush has her limits. She digs only so far. She was pretty and popular and smart. Living at the garish Chateaux Dijon in Houston as she taught elementary school, Bush watched as her friends got married, one after the other. If Bush, spending her summer at the pool, "reading the classics of Russian literature, traveling through the frigid, snow-laden novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in the swampy heat of Houston," worried about her future, she doesn't let on. When, at the then-overripe age of 31, she was finally married, one Midland woman remarked to Laura's closest friend, Regan Gammon: "Yes, can you imagine? The most eligible bachelor in Midland marrying the old maid of Midland?" Bush says she found it "funny" -- but she also mentions it twice.
About that eligible bachelor: His entrance is where "Spoken From the Heart" begins to turn, to close off. Laura spends more time discussing the geology of the Permian Basin than explaining her rapid-fire relationship with George.
"By the end of the month, George had asked me to marry him," she says. Scene please? No. "We had been dating only six or seven weeks but our childhoods overlapped so completely and our worlds were so intertwined, it was as if we had known each other our whole lives," Bush writes. At another point: "We never worried that any long-buried fact about the other person would appear and surprise us." Laura doesn't mention the accident, but was it easier to be with someone whom you didn't have to tell?
There is even less about what it was like to be subsumed into the Bush family, and the transformation of the young librarian who put off meeting George because she suspected he would be interested in politics into the newlywed who truly got to know her husband as they campaigned for an open congressional seat.
Bush didn't win, and from Laura's point of view that may have been just as well; the loss she felt much more keenly was the absence of babies. Then, finally, came the twins. As her in-laws settled into the vice presidential mansion, Laura and George led a simple life -- impromptu dinners with Laura's parents and growling dads chasing their kids around the cedar brush, playing El Tigre.
Meanwhile, though, the couple "were the outliers on the Bush family curve," rarely visiting Washington and getting together with the family only during summers, "with all the other cousins and meals for a small army of Bushes and wet beach towels strewn about the Kennebunkport house." Laura had wished on all those stars in the Texas sky for a sprawling brood, but, oh, those wet towels.
Laura's relationship with her in-laws emerges in nuggets. George H.W. is, variously, "George's dad," "Gampy," "President Bush" -- one of those in-laws you like but have never quite figured out how to address. At their wedding, the sentimental father "didn't even try to give a toast. Only Bar spoke." As for Bar, well, that relationship may be defined by her mother-in-law's brusque nickname.
"When I married George, I had thought I would be embraced by his mother every bit as much as he was embraced by mine." If so, well, she didn't know Bar. "I had planned on being more a daughter than a daughter-in-law, but Barbara Bush has five children of her own. She was their defender first. What I came to see ultimately as our bond was that we both loved George, and the depth of our love was what we had in common. Beyond that, we had little contact."
The "ferociously tart-tongued" Bar "even managed to insult nearly all of my friends with one or another perfectly timed acerbic comment." Eventually, a decade into her marriage, Laura and George moved to Washington to help with the presidential campaign, the twins "got to know their grandparents" as more than "flickering images on a TV screen," Laura and Bar bonded over books, and "Bar and I came to know and love each other." But point made.
In a subtler way, Laura emerges as very much like her mother-in-law: "defender first" of her husband and her family. About the flawed predicate for the war in Iraq: Well, the Bushes were given faulty information about whether the South Korean president liked to bowl (they brought a custom-made ball as a present to the perplexed leader, who had never seen one), but "no one ever believed that our intelligence would make a mistake about whether or not Saddam Hussein had military weapons of mass destruction." The photographs at Abu Ghraib were the work of "a few deranged men and women," not a byproduct of interrogation techniques imported from Guantanamo.
When Ronald Reagan died, "I listened to the words of praise from many who had once mocked President Reagan. In the intervening years, they had reassessed his life and his legacy." It is no stretch to think that Bush wrote with another presidential reputation in mind.
As these spousal memoirs tend to do -- see, for example, Hillary Clinton's "Living History" -- the book becomes less revealing as Bush's life becomes more public. The description of the White House years is more travelogue and recitation of annual holiday themes ("All Things Bright and Beautiful," "Home for the Holidays").
There are gossipy nuggets (Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, nipping from a flask to fortify themselves for an interminable receiving line) and glimpses of Laura, at times lonely still. "I turned to books for comfort. The quietest part of my day was always late afternoon, when my official schedule was finished but George was still at work in the Oval Office." Even as the first lady of Texas, Laura would have been going to the twins' games or helping with their homework. "Now, those pre-evening hours became the emptiest."
And there are moments, too rare, of piercing insight. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Laura, preparing to testify about early childhood development, is instead "trapped in an endless cycle of pleasantries" with Ted Kennedy, who is conducting a surreal tour of family mementos in his office as the twin towers burn. "I have often wondered if the small talk that morning was Ted Kennedy's defense mechanism, if after so much tragedy . . . he simply could not look upon another grievous tragedy," Bush writes.
It is a shame that "Spoken From the Heart" was, in the end, overly edited by the head. Because Laura Bush, with an ear trained by all those hours curled up with novels, clearly has more to tell, if she so chooses.
Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Washington Post.