The Education of Laura Bush

She has learned what is expected of her, and she'll do what she has to do: An exclusive interview with the first lady.

April 2001By Comments

On the ranch at Crawford, looking over new construction.
Photograph by Charles Ommanney

I met Laura Bush for the first time in early May 1995. An interview I had scheduled with the governor had to be changed from afternoon to evening and from the Capitol to the Governor’s Mansion. I was invited to a casual dinner, along with my wife. Mrs. Bush would be there. The interview was a lost cause, but the evening wasn’t. Most of the conversation is lost to memory, other than that it consisted mainly of nonpolitical small talk and the governor’s reports of phone calls from aides updating him on the progress of House floor action on his education bill, but at one point the antics of a prominent Texan popped up in the discussion—sorry, no names. I observed that he had once accused the Republicans of a nefarious plot to embarrass his family.

Suddenly Mrs. Bush leaned forward in her chair. “Not the Republicans,” she said. “Us! The Bushes!” It wasn’t just her words that made the moment embed itself in my memory, but the force with which she delivered them and her body language, which conveyed solidarity with her husband across the room. That brief exchange provided a rare glimpse into the private world of the Bush clan; its power and intensity, its unity and sense of loyalty, flashed before our eyes.

Soon afterward, she excused herself to put her twin daughters to bed. She returned later to say good-night, having changed into pants, and she was barefoot. You may not find this reportorial detail particularly newsworthy, but in the home in which I grew up, to come downstairs with feet unclad was an action that would draw my mother’s worst epithet: Tobacco Road, the title of a thirties novel about the unimaginably low-class life of sharecroppers in the Deep South. My wife and I exchanged approving glances: The first lady of Texas was a woman who, literally and figuratively, was comfortable in her own skin.

Now, six years later, Laura Bush is the first lady of the United States, one of the most visible and important women in the world. Yet the two sides of her that I first saw in 1995 still define the person she is today. You could call one side Laura and the other side Bush. Laura remains a woman who is down to earth, without affectation or pretension—someone who, as she once said, would be just as happy puttering around in her garden as being first lady. Her reluctant attitude toward public appearances hasn’t changed much since the time, early in their marriage, when he was running what would be an unsuccessful race for Congress in West Texas, and he asked Laura to make an appearance for him. “My husband told me I’d never have to make a political speech,” she told a group of supporters in Levelland. “So much for political promises.” But the other side of her is that she is totally a Bush. Not all of her education has come from reading the succession of books that the former teacher and librarian keeps stacked on her bedside table and on the floor beneath it. Being a member of the clan has also been a central part of the education of Laura Bush: She has learned what is expected of her, and she will do what she has to do.

The job of first lady has not always been what it is today. Indeed, before the Civil War, when presidential spouses served mainly as hostesses, the title did not exist; a British correspondent, ever mindful of royalty, was the first to apply it, in reference to Mary Todd Lincoln. (This distinction has not saved Mrs. Lincoln from historical opprobrium. Her eccentricity, her free spending on the White House in a time of war, and her family’s divided loyalty—several of her brothers fought for the Confederacy, leading to baseless rumors that she was a traitor—relegated her to the bottom spot in the Siena Research Institute’s 1982 and 1993 rankings of first ladies, based on a survey of historians at 102 universities.) With the rise of mass-circulation newspapers and magazines, the first lady became a public figure. Some were fashion trendsetters; others took political stands, most notably Eleanor (Mrs. Franklin) Roosevelt, the nation’s foremost civil rights activist and the leader in the Siena Institute surveys. In recent administrations, it has become customary for first ladies to promote a worthy cause, from beautification (Lady Bird Johnson) to literacy (Barbara Bush).

Laura Bush’s cause is reading, particularly early childhood reading. It brought her to Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Hyattsville, Maryland, on a mild morning in late February. Motivational signs occupied the cream-colored cinder-block walls of the small auditorium where she was to speak: “Today is a great day to LEARN something new”; “Turn the pages of your imagination—READ”; and on the podium, the name of the program Mrs. Bush would unveil that day, “Ready to Read. Ready to Learn.” Her appearance was scheduled for ten-thirty in the morning, but the room was filled to capacity more than an hour earlier. Despite the new Hispanic name of the fifties-era school, which reflected an ongoing demographic change in the surrounding neighborhood, the audience included a large number of African Americans— educators and dignitaries, along with some parents, from Prince George’s County, the largest and most affluent African American suburban community in the country. The women sported business suits and stylishly coiffed hair. Prince George’s is overwhelmingly Democratic country, but this event was, for this audience, more social than political.

The first lady arrived precisely on time, as is the Bushes’ way. (“Mr. and Mrs. Prompt” was her description to me in our 1999 interview.) She wore a light blue suit, shaded a bit toward lilac, and minimal jewelry: a wedding ring and earrings that were all but hidden by her hair, which had hints of red under the bright lights set up for the television cameras. Her speech was serious and self-effacing; the text was laced with references like “President Bush and I support . . .,” “President Bush has a plan . . .,” “I am proud to be a part of President Bush’s effort . . .,” all designed to underscore that the reading initiative was not hers alone but also her husband’s. Otherwise the speech was nonpolitical: no jokes, no made-for-TV soundbites, no rhetorical flourishes, no applause lines (although the audience did clap once, when she said, “Television is no substitute for a parent”). This was a speech for educators; she spoke of recruiting more teachers, of spotlighting early childhood programs, and of encouraging parents to read to their children. Her demeanor was earnest, but her emotions—and her motions—were reserved, which is how she always is in public. As she read the speech, she clenched the sides of the lectern with her hands, letting go only twice to make a slight gesture of turning her left palm upward. She could have been at a lyceum, presenting her annual research paper to her fellow members.

After the speech, the first lady went off to read to a group of kindergarten students while I waited in a hallway to talk to the principal. Among the many posters on the wall was one titled “If We Met President George Bush,” and underneath were three questions that students wanted to ask. “Do you work on projects?” “Do yo help peple?” “Do you fly airplanes?” Later I would ask the principal how the reading went. “Oh, she connected with those kids right away” came the answer. “I could tell she had been a teacher, because she had them sit around her, and she read upside down.” I didn’t get it. The principal explained, “So they could see the pictures.” Then she picked up a Styrofoam coffee cup from the table beside her and held it aloft, like a trophy. “Look!” she squealed with excitement. “Mrs. Bush drank from this cup!”

The position that Laura Bush occupies is at once great and small, a truth recognized by a 1989 cartoon in The New Yorker labeled “Ms. Rushmore.” The faces of Martha Washington, Martha Jefferson, Edith (Mrs. Theodore) Roosevelt, and Mary Lincoln appeared in place of their presidential husbands. The genius of the cartoon is its ambiguity: Is it making the straightforward point that first ladies are just as deserving of a memorial as their husbands or the ironic point that they are not? The ultimate arbiter, history, has not been kind to first ladies. Presidents are remembered; their wives are not. Who recalls today that Dolley Madison was the first American woman to influence fashion and manners? Who knows that Edith Roosevelt oversaw the construction of the West Wing, providing the title for a popular television show? Who reflects upon whether the Civil War might have been avoided if that most obscure of presidents, Millard Fillmore, had heeded wife Abigail’s advice not to sign the Fugitive Slave Bill into law? Few first ladies have continued to generate public fascination beyond their tenures in the White House. Before Hillary Clinton, Jacqueline Kennedy was the most obvious exception, though the obsession was largely with her celebrity status, first as the widow of an assassinated president, then as the wife of one of the world’s richest men. Her substantial achievements in historical preservation and the advancement of the arts have receded in public memory, leaving only her restoration of the White House, which is usually misdescribed today as “redecorating.”

If the fame and achievements of first ladies are fleeting, their role in their husband’s lives before reaching the White House tends to be relegated to history’s dustbin. In the case of Laura and George W. Bush, that will be a big omission. For no matter what she accomplishes as first lady, she will be hard-pressed to have as much influence over his life and career as she has already had. Without her, he would not be where he is.

The beginning of the story is well known. They grew up in Midland, he the son of an oilman, she the daughter of a developer; they were the same age and went to the same school but did not know each other. Their paths diverged in junior high, when the Bushes moved to Houston. She went to Southern Methodist University; he went to Yale. Their paths converged but did not cross when they lived in the same apartment complex in Houston. He moved to Midland to try his hand at the oil business. She moved to Austin to get a master’s degree in library science and stayed on to teach, but she went home frequently to Midland. They were both in their early thirties and single, and their mutual friends Jan and Joe O’Neill wanted her to meet him. In an interview in 1999, portions of which were used in a Time magazine article, Laura Bush recalled her initial reaction: “Oh, gosh, somebody who is probably political, and I wouldn’t be interested.” Finally, in 1977, she agreed to dinner at the O’Neill’s. What happened next must have resembled the romance of Professor Harold Hill and Marian, the Librarian, in The Music Man: fast-talking, wisecracking, lovable scamp meets unassuming, firmly grounded woman who values the life of the mind. They were married in three months.

The turning point of their lives came in 1986, their ninth year of marriage. He had gone back to the oil business, but the bust had hit Midland hard. His oil company wasn’t successful, and he was drinking too much. The oft-printed story is that he came to breakfast on his fortieth birthday and announced that he had decided to quit drinking. Later he would say that she had laid down the edict: her or the bottle. In the transcript of her Time interview, she disputes that version. It happened around three weeks after his fortieth birthday, she said. They had gone to the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs as part of a group celebrating the birthday of Donnie Evans, now the Secretary of Commerce. “I’d been talking for a while about him quitting drinking,” she said. “I don’t remember any announcement. I actually remember it more at home than at the Broadmoor. We joked later about it, saying he got the bar bill and that’s why he quit. There were a lot of jokes that I said it was either me or Jack Daniels. I didn’t really say that. I think George said that. He made it into the funny story.”

But she had been the catalyst. He did not stop drinking to become president, of course, but he would not have become president, or even governor, had she not gotten him to stop drinking. “He was very disciplined in a lot of ways except for drinking,” she said in the interview, “and I think when he was able to stop drinking, that gave him a lot of confidence and made him feel better about himself.”

The second time that Laura Bush would play a central role in making it possible for her husband to win the presidency came last year, at a critical moment in the race against Al Gore. In the weeks following the Democratic convention—a period known in the Bush camp as “rats, moles, and bad polls,” referring to various items of bad news for the home team—Gore had all the momentum on his side. Worse, the Republican nominee wasn’t performing well. Behind the scenes, he was trying to keep everyone else’s spirits up, but in public he looked wooden. Husband and wife were campaigning separately at the time, and the consensus in the Bush campaign was that she needed to travel with him. She knew it too. “She has a really good sense of how he is doing,” says Mark McKinnon, who handled the media advertising for the campaign and frequently traveled on the Bush airplane. “She’s the first one to hear the creaks in the submarine when it goes too low.”

Once she was next to her husband on the airplane, McKinnon could see the difference. “She brought calm and serenity to his bearing,” he says. “He was happier, more at ease, less distracted. Even on the airplane, he was more likely to relax. If she wasn’t there, he’d bounce around the plane.” With her present, he engaged in his favorite sport, which is joking around with her. Another staffer remembers Bush flying back from a trip to West Texas where all the food at the event was fried. “Ohhh,” he said to her, “I had too much chicken-fried. I’m going to have to . . .”—well, for the sake of politeness, let’s say “burp.” “Oh, no you’re not,” she said. “Oh, yes I am,” he rejoined, a big grin on his face. On the campaign plane, he liked to tease her when she was reading, testing the limits of her patience. “Hey, Bushie”—their pet name for each other—he would say. “What do you think about [such and such]?” She’d answer and go back to reading. Then he would start over again. “Hey, Bushie.”

The decision to bring Laura aboard the campaign plane marked the beginning of Bush’s comeback. Her role went beyond moral support; she saw most of the TV spots before they aired and wanted the end-of-the-race ads that had been filmed at their Central Texas ranch redone because of poor lighting. “She doesn’t say anything unless she feels strongly about it,” McKinnon says, “and she was right.” But mainly, he says, “She’s his safety net for life.” Some first ladies have hungered for the power and prestige that come with the position. Laura Bush is not one of them and neither was Martha Washington, the first first lady. As America prepared to choose its first president, Mrs. Washington wanted nothing more than to have her husband to herself for a change, but it was not to be. Nor was she to have her own life as she wished it. The president insisted that they entertain formally—dinner parties for government officials and various foreign plenipotentiaries on Thursdays, a drawing room reception with her as hostess on Fridays. But, he decreed, they would not attend private gatherings at the homes of their friends, as she wished to do. “I am more like a state prisoner than anything else, there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from,” she once wrote. Now it is Laura Bush who is in the gilded cage, having left behind in Austin a life that could not have been more to her liking. A year ago her children were at home, some of her oldest and closest women friends from her hometown of Midland had set down roots in Austin, and her husband had a job that did not place great demands on his time. She belonged to a book club, which was really more about friendship than books, and a garden club, both of which included old and new friends. She could stroll out the front door of the Governor’s Mansion and down Colorado Street for a walk along the lakefront. On most Sunday nights she and George W. ate dinner at Manuel’s on Congress Avenue; on pleasant spring afternoons they could even slip away to watch a ball game at Austin High, where their daughters went to school.

Her pet project was the Texas Book Festival, an idea that had been moribund until she came along and helped found it. The festival became an annual showcase for Texas authors, most of whose works she had read. She served as the honorary chair but was no figurehead; she attended committee meetings (including one last December that started a little over three hours before the president-elect made his acceptance speech with her at his side), participated in the selection of authors, signed letters to donors and authors personally rather than use a scanner, and sat in on the panels at the festival. When she was in the world of books—whether at the book club or working on the festival—she was much more Laura than Bush. The inner circle had as many Democrats as Republicans, which didn’t matter, since no one discussed politics anyway. Among the authors invited to participate at book festivals were Garry Mauro, who was Governor Bush’s Democratic opponent in 1998, and Jim Hightower and Molly Ivins, both liberal critics of the governor. That life has vanished. Now she is something of an empty nester: children gone to college, friends far away (although some have come along to Washington), husband surrounded by aides, freedom restricted. Last November she couldn’t even attend the panels at the book festival because of Secret Service concerns.

“I had the perfect life for myself in Austin,” Laura Bush acknowledged. She was sitting on a sofa in the Map Room of the East Wing of the White House, wearing another blue suit, this one sky-blue. It was a few minutes after seven o’clock in the morning, and the first lady had already appeared on Good Morning America, from an adjacent room. With Austin now behind her, she talked instead about the ranch in Crawford, close enough for her Austin friends to visit, where she spent two weeks in February. “It has the best walks ever,” she said, “steep walks into canyons by the creeks. Condoleezza Rice [the president’s national security adviser] explained the Balkans to George walking up one of those canyons. We congratulated her for never stopping to catch her breath or even breathing hard. Now we call it ‘Balkan Hill.'” The story was a reminder of something we don’t think about very often, that presidents and first ladies and august advisers are, after all, just people. “There are lots of native redbuds,” she went on. “A huge field of prickly pear. We’re going to have fields of wildflowers this spring, all native. I planted wildflowers on the dam—it’s not as easy as you think to get wildflowers started.” I asked her where she got her love of gardening. “It’s very relaxing,” she said. “When Barbara and Jenna were babies, I’d still have a few hours of light after they went to bed. One night I was in the garden, the babies were asleep, safe in their beds, and I remember thinking, ‘This is the life.'”

It is not surprising, given Laura Bush’s love for wildflowers, that Lady Bird Johnson is one of her two role models as first lady. (The other—even less of a surprise—is Barbara Bush.) “The American people look back and think, ‘Oh, she did flowers.’ But she was really radical for the time. She said we should use native plants that require less water. She really started the modern environmental movement.”

“How do you learn to be first lady?” I asked. “Do you go to ‘first lady school’ after you get here?” “I had a huge advantage,” she said. “George and I both did, from watching his father and mother. But the first lady can create the job as she wants it. I plan to work on what has always interested me, which is reading.” She has a social secretary to assist her with White House matters. Mrs. Bush’s biggest problem might be her own husband, who doesn’t like formal dress or staying up late for social occasions and might have to be reminded occasionally that these things are part of the job description of the president.

A lot of first ladies become political advisers to presidents, and I wondered if she would do the same. “I don’t presume to be one of my husband’s advisers,” she said. “Do we talk about issues? Sure. But not all the time. I’ve looked at speeches some. I might say something like, ‘Oh, I don’t think you ought to say that.'” I asked if she was responsible for his deep interest in education. It was the wrong question. Laura Bush is one of the most measured people I have ever interviewed. She answers questions politely and completely but without betraying emotion. She is always under control, hardly ever shifting position, much less changing her facial expression or waving her hands about. So when she made a bit of a fidget when I asked about education, I knew she didn’t like it. “People aren’t giving George the credit for being interested in education,” she said. “He knows how federal policy affects the states. He talks about how important local control is. You’re from Texas. You know how interested he was.”

Across the room, her press secretary made a motion that time was running out. I tried to avoid eye contact. “What are you reading?” I asked. “On my bedside table is Katharine Graham’s autobiography—we went to dinner at her house—and Edith Wharton’s biography,” she said. “I read the New York Times Book Review. But it’s hard to find time to read. I didn’t move my books here. I built a lot of bookshelves in Crawford.” I had the sense, then, that the times when Laura Bush will be happiest are the times that she is away from the White House. “The hardest part for me,” she went on, “is that the children don’t think of Washington as home. I have tried to get them to come here for spring break—one of them has two weeks—but they don’t want to come here. They want to go to Austin. I hope they realize,” said the first lady, “how much their mother misses them.”

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