When Laura Bush first introduced herself to the nation, she was asked what kind of first lady she’d like to be.
She politely told the press that she planned to just be Laura Bush. Her simple explanation was self-possessed, and several years into the George W. Bush presidency, Mrs. Bush won high public approval as a consistently elegant, deeply supportive—and tight-lipped political spouse.
Wearing a helmeted coif, taking an occasional dis from her then-insouciant teen twin girls, she offered few juicy private details that would tell us more about the President’s steel magnolia—the woman who liked to read and liked to smoke, as she famously once said of her hobbies.
Now, after yielding the White House spotlight during the first year of the troubled Barack Obama presidency, Mrs. Bush re-emerges to high interest and public scrutiny with her just released biography called Spoken from the Heart. Her 400-page plus memoir is not an eye-popping tell all—far too déclassé for a Texas belle—although many have lauded her candor in taking on some of her toughest moments including a devastating 1963 car crash that claimed the life of her boyfriend. Mainly, readers will find her take an upbeat one as she shares snippets of behind the scenes details during a fragile but key period in the life of the nation.
“Laura Bush really defined her First Lady-ship on her terms,” says Robert Watson, a professor of American Studies at Florida’s Lynn University and an expert on first ladies and presidential history.
“Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton—they both seemed to be remaking themselves every couple of months,” Mr. Watson said. “A new hairdo, a new look. With Laura Bush, what you saw was what you got—for eight years.”
But the spirited woman who was known to sneak an occasional cig back in the day did not have a breezy entrée into life inside the Beltway as her husband began his first term. Quickly, her role became more serious as the Bush presidency was impacted by the drama and danger of the September 11 terrorist attacks. While education reform was a natural issue for Mrs. Bush, a former educator and librarian who started book festivals in Washington and Texas, the administration’s domestic policy saw less focus as the scare of global terrorism and protecting folks at home took center stage.
Mrs. Bush’s book offers a heartfelt portrait of her growing up in Texas, her family relationships and longing for a sibling. She speaks candidly of her infertility early in her marriage and the joy of raising twin daughters. She offers an insider’s glimpse into the heart of her husband bearing up during an unpopular war and amid tanking approval ratings that ushered in the Obama era. She defends Mr. Bush’s character and leadership abilities and lauds his emotional side, something, she argues, most outsiders rarely got to see.
There are some good “meow” moments in the book, although delivered with a white glove. Bush 43 fans and plenty of GOP loyalists will no doubt take thrill at Mrs. Bush’s shots at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, which she assails—nicely—as the snippy Heckel and Jeckel of congressional naysayers. Mrs. Pelosi deemed George “incompetent” even as she danced and dined at White House dinners. Mr. Reid tossed barbs like “loser” and “liar,” earning Mrs. Bush’s ire. She asserts that their criticism was nastily personal and her husband, whose early political life was marked by his bipartisanship, would never have treated them like that.
“The comments were uncalled for and graceless,” she writes. “While a President’s political opponents as well as his supporters are entitled to make what they see as legitimate criticisms, and while our national debates should be spirited, these particular words revealed the very petty and parochial nature of some who serve in Congress.”
Appearing on CNN’s Larry King Live, Mrs. Bush discussed her book and details of her life as a political spouse. Yes, it was frosty going at first with Barbara Bush, but they eventually bonded as they got to know each other more. She never famously threw down the party gauntlet: “It’s either Jim Beam or me,” as some have reported about her husband’s quitting drinking.
Of that time in their married life: “We don’t have divorce in our DNA,” Mrs. Bush asserted of their committed bond.
On the 2000 election recount and divisive aftermath: “That was wild,” she said matter of factly, offering no mean-spirited dissection of the historic election finale with Vice President Al Gore and the infamous “hanging chads.” She also told Mr. King that her predecessor as First Lady, Hillary Clinton, was gracious as she took her on a tour the White House. “She was very forthcoming with advice, which I appreciated a lot,” Mrs. Bush said.
Walking the halls as a resident kept her mindful of the other families who had made the White House their home—a unique club. “You are always aware when you live there the challenges that others who lived there faced. A lot faced personal tragedies…or you know, the challenges our country faced while they lived there. In those days after Sept. 11… that was comforting and encouraging to us.”
Rightfully, says Mr. Watson, the presidential scholar who pens a report with advice to each new first lady, both Laura Bush and Michelle Obama eased into the job, stepping back as mothers to let their spouse shine and taking their time to fall into their roles.
“I think both First Ladies have wisely been students of history,” he observes. “They didn’t rush forward into the job. Both have followed good advice to find a role that you are comfortable with and define it on your own terms, to be sure to start off slower and build into the role and not look like you are trying to seize power.”
With Mrs. Bush earning a master’s degree and Mrs. Obama an Ivy League-educated lawyer, he adds, “they are two of the most well educated First Ladies in history.
“Both had successful careers outside of and before marriage, a modern day First Lady phenomenon,” he said. “These aren’t your grandparents First Ladies. Mrs. Obama was actually once the boss of her husband, a delicious irony at the beginning of his career.”
Even as Mrs. Obama has embraced non-traditional topics for a First Lady like childhood obesity and healthcare, she has “framed them with the perspective of being a mother worried about her kids,” Mr. Watson explains. She has also taken on issues like improving living conditions for military families from the place of being a mother worried about her children, making it a natural extension of her motherly role.
“She always calls herself mom in chief. It’s cute,” Mr. Watson says. “But make no mistake—Michelle and Barack is a partnership and this is an Ivy League opinionated and very intelligent woman who is not just baking cookies. She has taken a page out of Laura Bush’s playbook by gradually and slowly working her way into the job.”
Mrs. Bush, whose book now climbs the best-sellers lists, continues her book tour in the weeks ahead and said she now spends her time working at a policy institute in Dallas at her alma mater, Southern Methodist University, where her husband’s library is set to break ground in later this fall. There, she works on some of the same key issues she did as First Lady including supporting literacy efforts for Afghan women and girls.
“It’s a way for George and I to continue to work on policy without being involved in politics,” she said, noting that her husband has happily kept quiet on politics in his year away from Washington.
She was tactical when asked about how the Obama presidency was going.
“I’m watching with great interest,” she said on CNN. “I know what the job is like and how demanding it is.”
She quickly added: “I’m enjoying my private life at home.”