Tuesday, 25 May 2010

“Spoken From the Heart”, by Laura Bush (Simon & Schuster)

Bush-SpokenFromTheHeart The Former First Lady’s Story

Born in the boom-and-bust oil town of Midland, Texas, Laura Welch grew up as an only child in a family that lost three babies to miscarriage or infant death. She vividly evokes Midland’s brash, rugged culture, her close relationship with her father, and the bonds of early friendships that sustain her to this day. For the first time, she writes about the high school car accident that left her friend Mike Douglas dead and about her decades of unspoken grief.

When Laura left West Texas in 1964, she never imagined that her journey would lead her to the world stage and the White House. She began as an elementary school teacher, working in inner-city schools, then trained to be a librarian. At age 30, she met George W. Bush. Three months later, “the old maid of Midland married Midland’s most eligible bachelor,” joining one of America’s most prominent political families.

In 2001, she moved into the White House. She captures presidential life in the harrowing days and weeks after 9/11, when fighter-jet cover echoed through the walls and security scares sent the family to an underground shelter. It was a time that would also transform her role: Laura was one of the first US officials to visit war-torn Afghanistan; she reached out to disease-stricken African nations; tirelessly advocated for women in the Middle East and dissidents in Burma; she championed programs to get kids out of gangs and to stop urban violence.

In Spoken From The Heart, she reveals her public triumphs and personal tribulations and the story of real life inside the White House.

The early parts of the book, which cover Laura’s life in Midland, are interesting in their quaintness, not least in the considerable, stark difference to what her life as the wife of a governor and president would be. Her reminiscences and portraits of her parents are endearing – from her father’s love of gambling (though he was never a degenerate), to his cheeky respect for his mother’s opposition to alcohol:

“When Grandma Welch came to visit, Daddy would still drink, but out of deference to his mother, he poured his bourbon into a Coca-Cola bottle.”

She draws a picture of small-town Texan life that anyone might recognise from Friday Night Lights, where Friday night is football night; where close-knit families are the norm; the importance of oil to the Midland region; retail politics; race relations; and the fact that life is good, if sometimes hard. She even recalls the day JFK was assassinated: she was “sitting in my senior year History of Western Thought class at the precise moment when our own history shuddered and changed”.

My main issue with the pre-White House third of the book is that it can be somewhat repetitive, and could have been cut by a good 50 pages or so. That being said, this is only because Mrs. Bush seems uncomfortable or unwilling to go into much detail. The car accident mentioned in the synopsis, for example, is dealt with quite quickly and in a somewhat detached manner.

This, actually, is my main criticism of Spoken From the Heart: it has a rather detached air about it. For some reason, perhaps an innately reserved nature of the author herself, the biography feels disconnected, as if Mrs Bush is writing about someone else’s life. This is perhaps a little bit of an unfair characterisation, as Mrs Bush’s love for her family – particularly her daughters – is evident whenever she discusses them; as is her love of books and she writes nostalgically of her teaching years.

There is an interesting, if short and not particularly in-depth description of GWB’s decision to stop drinking. Clearly, Mrs Bush did not approve of GWB’s drinking, even while recognising that it was perfectly normal for a Texas male to drink as much as he – and their friends – did. She writes,

“when he’d poured enough, he could be a bore. Maybe it’s funny when other people’s husbands have had too much to drink at a party, but I didn’t think it was funny when mine did... I was disappointed. A I let him know that I thought he could be a better man.”

Mrs Bush seems to put less responsibility on Billy Graham’s influence (although he is mentioned) and more on the simple fact that GWB had grown up and generally matured on his own, taken on the responsibility of a family, and continued concerns about embarrassing his father.

Her life with George W. Bush (GWB) and as a member of one of America’s most famous and powerful families provides more interesting reading material, and this is when the memoir really kicks in. Almost as soon as they returned from their honeymoon in Cozumel, Mexico, GWB’s life in and around politics becomes a central part of her life – from the campaigns to her experiences as the daughter-in-law of a president and the wife of a governor and president. “We spent nearly a year on the road, and in many ways the bonds of our marriage were cemented in the front seat of that Oldsmobile Cutlass” that they travelled in during GWB’s campaign unsuccessful for Congress; this campaign was followed by George H.W. Bush’s two vice-presidential campaigns and two presidential campaigns, and then GWB’s gubernatorial campaigns and the contested presidential 2000 campaign. This latter could have been dealt with at more length – it was over rather quickly, and it would have been interesting to see another side of the tense months of the recount. Speaking of GWB’s decision to run for president, Mrs Bush was not an immediate convert:

“I had been late to sign on to his decision to run. Politics had turned ugly during his dad’s 1992 race with Bill Clinton. I had watched political opponents and the media draw the most hideous caricatures of George H.W. Bush until I barely recognised my own father-in-law. I believed in my George... and I knew he would be a great president. It was the process in which I had far less faith.”

This is a somewhat ironic statement, given the accusations thrown at the feet of GWB’s political team, most notably Karl Rove, of underhanded and unsavoury tactics used in, particularly the primaries (let’s not forget the smearing of John McCain in South Carolina) and also the general. This is not mentioned at all in Mrs Bush’s memoir.

It is after her marriage to GWB that she writes about her long-frustrated desire to have children, and the eventual affection and love she feels for her daughters is undeniable. The passages about her family come across as the most personal, and as a result are more interesting to read, and we get to know Laura Bush a little better. She also seems more animated when discussing her work on the Austin Book Festival and then the National Book Festival she founded in partnership with the Library of Congress.

There is plenty in Spoken From the Heart that is interesting, and certainly Laura Bush writes well and clearly. What disappointed me – beyond the slight detached air – is what will probably disappoint other political junkies: the first 130 pages or so are just a little bland, and don’t really contain anything we don’t already know. Mrs Bush sprinkles tangents throughout the book, many of which offer interesting asides and tidbits of information about life as a governor or as First Lady, and it is these little touches that offer the greatest value in the book – for example, the fact that being president is an expensive enterprise: from the First Lady’s wardrobe expectations to the itemised monthly bills for food and supplies at the White House (turns out, only ‘bed’ is provided, not ‘breakfast’). There are certain omissions, which made me think that perhaps Mrs. Bush was being overly careful when compiling the book. This was disappointing, as the potential for this book to properly pull back the curtain on the GWB presidency, to offer a full, alternative perspective on life in post-9/11 Washington, appeared considerable.

The events of and immediately after 9/11 are, of course, an interesting section. Here Mrs Bush offers her own perspective, of the general sense of paranoid anticipation, having to deal with sporadic alarms at the White House (being woken at the dead of night, told that they needed to leave because the White House was under attack). The confusion and fear of the time are ably portrayed, and all from an outside-yet-inside perspective that must have been particularly difficult to live through.

The author does discuss, in good detail, the life and expectations of being the First Lady – something it does not always seem that she was comfortable with. Indeed, in the near aftermath of GWB’s election in 2000, Laura had the sense that

“There was, from the start, an underlying assumption on the part of the press that I would be someone else when I assumed the role of First Lady, that I would not, under any circumstances, simply be myself.”

As First Lady, though, Laura did plenty of work with disadvantaged children and on women’s rights issues – in Africa, Afghanistan and also at home in the US. It is surprising, reading Spoken From the Heart, just how active she was during her husband’s presidency. It was inevitable that she would not receive much attention, considering the scandals – real and imagined – that surrounded the Bush administration, the War in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a multitude of other problems that have been written about seemingly ad infinitum. There were times when she was asked about certain policy decisions, and it is welcome that, even on some of the most hot-button Culture War issues in presidential politics, Mrs Bush is confident enough to voice her own opinion. For example, on abortion – which was prominent in the 2000 campaign, she writes (after suggesting adoption as a worthy alternative to be promoted but not pushed – a position I share, actually):

“We are a nation of different generations and beliefs, seeing issues through different eras and different eyes. While cherishing life, I have always believed that abortion is a private decision, and there, no one can walk in anyone else’s shoes.”

In the 2004 presidential campaign, the Culture War focus was Gay Marriage, and Laura writes how she “had talked to George about not making gay marriage a significant issue”, given the number of gay friends and the children of friends who were gay they knew. Unfortunately, John Kerry brought the issue into a presidential debate by mentioning Dick Cheney’s daughter, which hurt his campaign (even though what he said, indelicate and misplaced as it was, was completely logical and would have identified certain hypocrisies in staunch Culture War Republican positions).

Laura writes of how the discussions and “great debates” during her time at university were “sometimes with a bit of remove” – this is a little how I found the early parts of the memoir. That being said, this is not, really, meant to be a ‘political memoir’, and this is perhaps something I kept forgetting throughout reading it. If I’d kept this firmly in mind, then I would have realised sooner that what I mistook for detachment is really a lack of the ego that so often characterises even the best-meaning political memoirs.

If you’re expecting political revelations about the GWB administration, then this is not the best book for you to read. If, on the other hand, you are interested in learning a bit more about life behind the scenes, in the White House without being President, what it is like to exist in such a world (dealing with the history, responsibility, the pomp and ceremony, the expectations), the Spoken From The Heart is a well-written account of a First Lady’s life in the capital. It’s not exciting, but it is accessible and clearly written. Following in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s memoirs – her predecessor in the ‘position’ – it was always going to be difficult to live up to expectations. It is, actually, unfair to judge the two women’s writing on the same scale, so different are their personalities and ambitions, but it is an inescapable fact that they will be – just as Spoken From the Heart will be judged more as a book on the George W. Bush administration than it will a memoir of just Laura Bush.

A wary recommendation, then, largely dependent on what it is you are hoping to get out of such a memoir.


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