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Laura Bush shares the special view she took in for eight years

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2010; C01

The first lady's dressing room affords one of Washington's great views. It peers down into the Rose Garden and the Oval Office -- a secluded window on history unspooling in real time.

Laura Bush gazed through the pane often, back when the White House was her house. But, as she writes in her new memoir, "Spoken From the Heart," she was "always careful to stand just inside the frame so that no one could spot me."

That window also frames the paradox of Mrs. Bush. Loved -- really, really loved -- by so many in the public for not drawing too much attention to herself and for, mostly, staying out of affairs of state; a source of frustration for much of the capital intelligentsia who always wanted more of her, who viewed her as impenetrable, the most unknowable of unknowables, hidden behind a perfect smile and unshakably genteel manner. They always suspected there was an inner life behind the outer composure, but they struggled to see it and chafed that she wouldn't let them peek inside.

She's smiling and genteel, of course, when the sea of Secret Service agents parts, and the door to a suite at the Four Seasons in Georgetown swings open. "Come on in," she says in that instantly familiar, inviting West Texas way, drawing out the vowels.

She sits comfortably in an upholstered chair, wearing a cream-colored Oscar de la Renta pantsuit -- the same Oscar de la Renta who designed that famous red dress, the one that Mrs. Bush loves to joke about because she and three other women wore it to the same White House reception in 2006. In the suite, there's a window to her back -- and no fashion overlaps. Here, though, a year and a half since vacating the White House, it's less clear whether she's still hidden inside the frame or venturing outside of it.

First ladies, she says after a few minutes, suffer from the standard reductionist treatment. They're viewed as one type or another -- Hillary Clinton, hashing out legislation from a West Wing office, or Lady Bird Johnson tending flowers. The truth of Laura Bush, and the others, "is more complicated," she says. But the portrayals, inevitably, are "flat and one-dimensional."

"It's frustrating," she says.

In her book -- now zooming to the upper reaches of bestseller lists -- Mrs. Bush looks to add that third dimension. With the aid of Lyric Winik, a gifted crafter of sentences, she writes for the first time about losing her faith for years after that dark Texas night when she -- just 17 years old -- drove through a stop sign and killed a high school friend who was in a car crossing the same intersection. The unfailingly polite former first lady slams a few journalists by name in the book and confides that she was "unnerved" by the "nasty things" written about her predecessor's hairstyles.

While appreciative of the luxuries extended to the first family, she also makes it clear that she had to reach into her own pocket to pay for meals and family parties -- "if the girls came home or we had friends to dinner or guests who stayed overnight, we were billed," she writes. She adds, however, that paying for such expenses "is more than fair."

Keeping up appearances was costly, as well. Almost every morning, she says, she paid for a stylist to come to the White House and blow-dry her hair.

Really? How much could that have run?

Here, she stiffens ever so slightly. She's still smiling, but . . .

"I don't think I'll share that," she replies.

In her book she does share a bit about her husband's much-chronicled drinking problem, and his decision to stop cold turkey at 40; and she confides that she herself drank and smoked too much as a young woman.

Since first family nicotine speculation is all the rage these days -- President Obama has copped to taking a puff from time to time, even as he vows he's trying to kick the habit -- it seems logical to inquire whether Mrs. Bush, now 63, still smokes.

"I quit fairly recently," she says.

An awkward back-and-forth ensues regarding the whens -- sometime while she was still first lady (the White House, she says, is "not conducive to smoking") -- and the hows (cold turkey).

But the former teacher opts against a teachable-moment lecture about the dangers of smoking. She laughs, and says, seemingly as much to herself as to the others in the room, that it was a "gotcha" question.

In her book, Mrs. Bush writes about the complexities of hosting White House events, and she says she "was sorry" for the Obamas when their first state dinner was marred by the uninvited guests, Michaela and Tareq Salahi. "I thought the party crashers were con artists," Mrs. Bush says.

'A class act'

There are no gate-crashing incidents and no gotcha questions a couple of days before, as everyone from Condoleezza Rice to Trent Lott lines up to congratulate Mrs. Bush at a swanky book party hosted by Ambassador Salem Al-Sabah and his wife Rima Al-Sabah at the Embassy of Kuwait.

Nor in McLean, where a celebrity-free line forms outside a Books-a-Million on a balmy afternoon for a chance to have Mrs. Bush sign copies of her memoir. Inside, country tunes pour from speakers and giddy women crane their necks from behind bookshelves to glimpse her: "She's soooo pretty. She's smaller than I thought. She's lost weight!" (On that last point, Bush later explains, they're wrong. But she is keeping fit with private yoga instruction, she notes, pressing her palms together in namaste position.)

Listen to her many fans, and you get a sense that Laura Bush is beloved as much for what she isn't as what she is.

"She's not into the lights and the glamour," says Mike Dillon, a 19-year-old who headed over for the book signing after exams at Catholic University. "She kept herself limited and reserved."

"She's not as political as Mrs. Clinton," says Anne Muha, a 32-year-old former librarian who brought along her 3-year-old, Genevieve.

"She wouldn't say anything too bad about anyone," says Helene Landes, an 87-year-old grandmother from McLean, who's sitting on a canvas camping chair next to the line.

"She's just a class act," says Lawson Gullette, a 55-year-old geologist from McLean. "Hillary Clinton's a nice lady, and all. But she had an office in the West Wing! That's not how I see the role of the first lady. The first lady is there to support the president."

Yet, this particular former first lady wants to be remembered for much more than standing by her man through terrorist attacks and wars. She did, after all, found the hugely successful National Book Festival, transporting a concept she built and perfected in Austin as first lady of Texas. She wants to talk about teacher recruitment and educating and empowering women around the world, with a special focus on Afghanistan, where she is directing some of the energies of the George W. Bush Institute, to be housed on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

She gets a hand for trying to build a rep as a woman of substance from commentator Cokie Roberts, who hosts a question-and-answer session before a packed house at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium one recent evening. Bush, Roberts tells the crowd, once called for the overthrow of the regime in Burma while she was first lady.

"It was not exactly sitting, pouring tea," says Roberts, who tells the audience she is "an enormous Laura Bush fan." Roberts wonders aloud "why they put you in some sort of 'sweet little wife category.' " Not that she's not sweet. The point, implied but not stated, is that substantive and sweet are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The next day, in a phone conversation, Mrs. Bush's former chief of staff, Anita McBride, runs through her own theories: "She came to town being viewed in a lot of the articles as the nice teacher, librarian, traditional woman, and that is how she was typecast." McBride accuses the media of mostly trifling with matters of fashion and generally ignoring Bush's substantive work because it was obsessed with war and terrorism and biased against her husband.

"Perhaps we'll get to the point where there's an equal level of interest in the great work first ladies do," McBride says.

Refreshing her memory

Back in the Four Seasons suite, Mrs. Bush says she expects to see a female president one day, though she hastens to say she hopes the first one will be "a Republican woman." She's spent time with Sarah Palin and, asked whether the former Alaska governor could be The One, she says: "I think that's a possibility."

Longing for a private life and hardly self-absorbed, Mrs. Bush was hesitant to embark on her memoirs, and says that for a time she called it "the damned book project." She dictated her thoughts into a recording device, and an assistant transcribed them. She doesn't type well -- and never has, she likes to say.

This is her way of a lead-in to a favorite story. When she was in her 20s, she interviewed for a job with Texas Rep. George Mahon. But she didn't get it because he couldn't envision a woman doing more than secretarial work and Mrs. Bush couldn't envision going back to school to learn typing after her father had paid for her to get an education degree from Southern Methodist University.

Mrs. Bush did not keep a diary during her time as first lady, McBride says. Staffers helped refresh her memory with photos. She also reconnected with her old self by driving through her home town of Midland, past homes her father built and where she and Dubya lived as newlyweds. And she read, for the first time, letters her father wrote to her mother while he was stationed in Europe during World War II.

"They were his love letters," she tells the audience at Lisner, an audience that collectively sighs in empathy several times in the course of a little more than an hour. "I always felt she didn't want me to read them. . . . I did feel a little like a voyeur."

Near the close of the evening, she reads from the final page of her book: "I treasure my public life, I also treasure the quiet of my private one."

She rises to loving applause and takes a few steps. When she reaches the lectern, she pauses, seemingly uncertain whether to stay or go. She takes a few more steps, stops, blows three kisses, and slips away -- out of public view, inside the sanctuary of her life's window frame.

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