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

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2010

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 . . .

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