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all unkempt hair, “ratty hems” and flipflops. “Jenna will have plenty of time to get herself together before the entourage lands in Paris,” Gerhart reasons, given that there’s a hairdresser and a makeup artist on board, not to mention a shower. But when Jenna emerges seven and a half hours later looking exactly the same, then demands that a secret service agent hide her from cameras with a garment bag, Gerhart’s astounded, and concludes: “there are only two possible explanations for what I have just asked her twenty-year-old daughter to please make herself more presentable, more fitting as a representative of the United States using taxpayer dollars on an official visit, and her daughter bothered to ask.” One could read this as evidence that Laura learned from the car accident to be more compassionate and less judgmental, I suppose. One could also conclude, however, that the painful incident in Laura’s own youth accounts for the misguided policy of protecting her daughters from any kind of unpleasantness whatsoever. Gerhartprovides considerable evidence of Laura’s pre-marital commitment to her career and education, and she also makes a strong case for her real love of books and her hands-on involvement with her signature event, the Texas Book Festival. But these examples just raise as many questions as they answer. Is there no trace left of the young single woman who lived in Austin in the 1970s and socialized with liberals and listened to cosmic cowboys? If she truly cares so much about books and ideas, how can she find true companionship in a man who doesn’t read and speaks in first-grade sentences? If she is as literate and curious and compassionate as she seems to want to convince us she is, how can she tolerate what must be wrenching conflict when she hears her husband squeeze out his studied antiintellectualisms and non sequiturs, when he speaks for her and she sits rigidly to the side with a wan smile frozen on her pleasant Midlandian face? How can she, a woman who came of age after the 1950swho graduated from college in 1968, for God’s sakenot practically explode when her husband says he has “the best wife for the line of work [he’s in]” because “she doesn’t try to steal the limelight.” It’s because she’s from Midland, Gerhart suggests, that Laura Bush is capable of retreating to an older version of femininity. After narrating the tragic tale of young Laura’s car accident, Gerhart offers a vignette of Midland society in November 2002. Visiting the Republican Women’s Club luncheon at the old-guard Petroleum Club, Gerhart concludes that Midland is the land that time forgot, where people of color stay on their side of town, and where women “have never worked a day in their lives […] But can all sit right there and write out of their checking accounts, big, big checks.” It’s an awfully big East-Coast swipe at a soft target, and I don’t buy it. I’m not convinced when Gerhart quotes a local observer who says, “‘That’s the role of women here. And that has a lot to do with why Laura is the way she is, too. She was brought up in that role for women.” Yes, well, so were a lot of us and the only way we’d go back would be first kicking and screaming and then, medicated and drooling. Few mysteries are more impenetrable than other people’s marriages, and no marriage is more visible and vulnerable to critique than the First Marriage. What seems to draw Gerhart to her subject is the same thing that will draw in her readers: the spectacle of Laura Bush’s seamless assumption of that most difficult of roles: Perfect Wife and First Lady: The job has that peculiar title. Linger over it when you say itFirst. truly appreciate how outof-date it is. The position is purely derivative. All reflected power. There is no job description, no constitutional mandate, no clear set of performance goals. decorations, shyly allowing the French President Chirac to kiss her hand, getting on and off helicopters and airplanes with smiles and waves, dancing in a ball gown with her husband, walking the ranch in jeans, hunkered down in a child’s chair to read aloud. We watch with the same blend of curiosity, skepticism, and envy that we turn on the groups of women at the end of the bar, the other table at lunch, the locker room, and wherever else we can lower our ethnographer’s gaze without being caught looking, and wonder what it would be like to live a life where everything fits: your jeans, your underwear, your self. For those of us for whom being a woman, let alone a First Lady, is a literal and metaphorical study in jagged edges, frayed seams, slipped straps, recalcitrant flesh, inappropriate hemlines, too loud laughs, and awkward silences, Laura Bush is a compelling and deeply suspicious creature. Even after reading Gerhart’s book, I still don’t much like or trust her, but I hope, if I got the chance, over a few margaritas and some long talks about books, I’d come to understand her better. The Life and Choices of LAURA BUSH We watch Laura Bush “looking Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton is a writer lovely and walking properly,” as a First in Austin and an assistant professor at Lady must, showing off the Christmas Southwestern University. 3/26/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 27