The Better Half


So I’ve come to the point in my life that I read a book and talk back to it. That’s what Laura Bush’s autobiography, Spoken From the Heart, made me do, anyway. I read it with a divided mind, talking out of both sides of my mouth. What is a first lady’s job? I kept wondering. What, specifically, did Laura Bush owe us?

The answer to the first question is: Nobody knows what a first lady does, but everybody has an opinion about it. You are paid nothing. You get a privileged, but isolated and isolating, view of the world. You are criticized no matter what you do, say or wear.

The second question—what did Laura Bush owe us?—is more convoluted. By “us,” I mean you and me—Texans who might not have voted for George W. Bush in 2000, but wished him well when he became president. He seemed like a decent guy—a uniter, not a divider—and let’s be honest, wasn’t it kind of cool to have another Texan in the White House? Besides, many of us felt his wife would be a tempering, liberalizing influence on him. We liked her, recognized her sincerity and admired her for helping start the Texas Book Festival and loving literature. How bad could the Bush administration be?

We know the answer: far worse than we imagined. To read Laura Bush’s book is to return to the chaotic, harrowing days and months after 9/11. We recall how this country’s initial unity and support from most of the world were squandered, how a national tragedy was used for partisan politics, and how a war of choice has wasted untold thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

Laura Bush sees it all differently, of course. She loves her husband and is deeply loyal to him. She’s outraged at the vicious politics of the early 21st century and the toll it took on her husband and daughters, even if she never quite acknowledges the role her husband’s party played in spiking the national debate with poison.

There’s more to Spoken from the Heart and Laura Bush herself. She writes movingly about her childhood in West Texas, that hard, desolate country of grit and sandstorms and fierce winds. Her account of the great tragedy of her young life, when her carelessness and inexperience as a driver resulted in another teenager’s death, is heartbreaking. She offers no excuses, and she still regrets not going to see the young man’s family after his funeral. She is the only child of loving parents who wanted other children but couldn’t have them; the devoted mother to twin daughters; part of a group of friends who’ve remained close for decades. Her passion for literature and her concerns about the plight of Afghan women come across as heartfelt and sincere.

Anyone who’s read Curtis Sittenfeld’s excellent novel, American Wife, which is based on Laura Bush’s life, can’t help comparing it with her autobiography—and wishing Bush were as forthright as the novel’s main character, Alice Lindgren Blackwell. In American Wife, Alice loves her husband, but is keenly aware of his shortcomings. “All I did is marry him,” she tells us in the most-quoted section of the novel.

“You are the ones who gave him power.”

Fiction is fiction, and a political autobiography, even one billed as “from the heart,” is political. Some of us wanted a Betty Ford in the White House, outspoken and headline-grabbing, but that’s not who Laura Bush is. She’s discreet and loyal. She took a job without a job description, salary or oath of office. No matter what any of us expected, she didn’t owe us for promises she didn’t make.

In an era of tell-all and sell-all, Laura Bush can keep a secret, and she’s clear about her loyalties to her family. I disagree with most of her political stances. I get heartburn at her friendly mentions of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, but I can’t help myself: I respect her. She’s a private woman who’s learned to be political to protect herself and her family. She’s herself, not who we wanted her to be.