WITH JUST DAYS TO GO before the end of this, one of the bitterest electoral seasons in memory, I found myself wondering how Laura Bush, that famously reluctant political wife, was holding up. She seemed to be doing just fine: Resplendent in powder blue, she sent the Republicans into a frenzy during her impeccably soporific speech at the GOP convention, and she was even nice to Dr. Phil after he noted crabbily on a promotional spot that first twin Jenna Bush had stuck her tongue out at reporters. Laura seemed to have long forgiven—or was using to ironic effect—her husband’s broken promise several decades ago that she would never have to make a political speech. Now she was barnstorming the country on George W. Bush’s behalf, speaking her mind—albeit softly—being less than optimistic about the prospects for stem cell research, supporting those smarmy Swift boat ads that denigrated John Kerry’s military service, and being nasty-nice as the First Surrogate, calling Rathergate as she saw it. (“You know,” she said of the 60 Minutes documents that purported to prove her husband was a military slacker, “they probably are altered and they probably are forgeries, and I think that’s terrible, really.”)
Her sable-hued, wash ’n’ go do remained impervious to attacks that others might consider hair-raising. Loyal Democrats have taken to spackling her with the Stepford Wife label. Cultural critic James Wolcott, swept up in an anti-Bush swivet, retracted the nice things he had said about Laura in Vanity Fair and dissed her in his blog as “just another warden in a pantsuit” and “another saccharine phony.” Kitty Kelley described her in The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty as the Southern Methodist University coed who was “the go-to girl for dime bags of marijuana.” In The Perfect Wife, biographer Ann Gerhart dumped all over her for being a bad mom. (“There is plenty that the Bushes don’t ask their daughters to do, that much is clear.”) Austin artists and writers—big fans when Laura was their ardent supporter as Texas’s first lady—have raised money to display their unhappiness with the president in full-page newspaper ads in swing states. Prestigious American poets torpedoed a reading she tried to host at the White House. Laura Bush has sailed through all this and more, without once asking anyone to “shove it.” This may be why John Kerry praised her, rather wistfully, I thought, in the first presidential debate as a “terrific person” and “a great first lady.”
Indeed, Laura has mastered the cleverest first ladies’ trick of becoming more popular than their more famous spouses. Even better—for herself and her husband—Laura’s ascendancy has occurred at a time when the women’s vote, lost by Bush-Cheney in 2000, appears to be up for grabs. Noting the first lady’s “Xanax-like demeanor” and “faultless librarian’s poise,” überfeminist and Gore 2000 adviser Naomi Wolf conceded that the Bush team has brilliantly closed the gender gap by putting Laura, Condoleezza Rice, Lynne Cheney, and other goody-goody GOP goddesses out front, in stark contrast to Teresa Heinz Kerry, whom Republicans like to portray as Ms. Tabasco and Onions (even though Mrs. Cheney could easily compete for the title). Laura’s fans and critics alike tend to see her enormous popularity as either a reaction to her pushy predecessor or to her own husband, who can inspire paranoid psychosis in his detractors with just one well-timed smirk. Or they credit Laura’s success—she couldn’t possibly do it alone!—to the stark, deadly efficiency of Team Bush, particularly the recently returned Iron Maiden, Karen Hughes. All of these political assists may indeed have helped the first lady become nearly as popular as her stiletto-shrewd mother-in-law, but it is time to give credit where credit is due. Laura Bush is probably our most brilliant first lady to date, because she understands the kind of woman the American public really wants as its representative and role model: a complete and total cipher. She has intentionally made herself into a blank screen upon which they can project their own ideas about womanhood.
CONSIDER THE EVIDENCE. Unlike a great many political wives—Nancy Reagan, Rosalynn Carter, and Hillary Clinton come to mind—Laura Bush knew what the job entailed and early on declared her indifference. Friends Jan and Joe O’Neill had to campaign for two years before she would agree to meet George W. Bush, and even then, the man Laura eventually married wasn’t exactly wearing a sandwich board that said “Future President of the USA” or even “Future City Councilman.” Bush then was just a good-time Midland oilman, something of a galoot. (Note to Freudians: Laura’s father was known for his exuberance; he was the kind of guy who broke into “Hello, Dolly!” when Laura’s blond friends walked in the door.) Assuming George’s wells would have eventually come in—and, given his history, that’s a big assumption, but something else might have come along—Laura probably envisioned a future as a Midland society matron, not a role to which all ambitious career women aspire but a cushy, cozy life nevertheless. (Biographers tend to focus on the hot, dry, dusty landscape of Midland—“an innocent life of burgers at Agnes’ drive-in and of cruising the flat, windswept streets of West Texas,” said the Washington Post —overlooking that many of the city’s community leaders were wealthy Eastern transplants like her suitor’s parents, who brought the manners and mores of the American aristocracy with them.) It was, and is, on the surface at least, an urban oasis of book clubs, garden clubs, country clubs, and the kind of strange rites that spring up in isolated wealthy communities. In other words, Laura wasn’t the kind of wife who staked her well-being on her husband’s success in the world; if George could have made himself into an even semi-successful citizen of Midland, she probably would have been content to raise her children in her hometown, reading, carpooling, visiting with her parents, and taking the occasional trip on somebody’s private jet.
Not that Midland was dull. “In Midland, you