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.
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

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