Reading Laura Bush

She has spent the past two years keeping herself out of the spotlight. But now that she’s stepping up her fight against illiteracy, the very private first lady of Texas is being thrust into the public eye.
Reading Laura Bush
Tome, sweet tome: Like her mother-in-law, the ex-librarian is passionate about books.
Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

In early 1994 Laura Bush wasn’t crazy about the idea of her husband running for governor of Texas. When he decided to run anyway, she made it clear that she wasn’t going to be one of those wives who are always by their husbands’ side. She liked being at home, reading books and taking care of their twin daughters.

It wasn’t that the former elementary school teacher and librarian was painfully shy; she just wasn’t all that interested in living a public life, nor was she used to one. Her husband, George W. Bush, had run for office only once before—he’d sought a congressional seat in West Texas in 1978—and he had lost. One day during that campaign, he had to miss a rally in the town of Levelland and begged Laura to go in his place. She reluctantly agreed. When she got there, she rose and repeated a line she had memorized earlier that day. “My husband told me I’d never have to make a political speech,” she said. “So much for political promises.” Then, forgetting the rest of her speech, she nervously mumbled a few words about George’s good qualities and sat down after only a minute and a half.

Fast-forward eighteen years to the Republican National Convention in San Diego. On August 12, 1996, Laura Bush strides to the podium to give a brief prime-time speech on the importance of literacy. “Reading is to the mind what food is to the body,” she says in calm, measured tones. “And in Texas, nothing will take higher priority.” Her husband, sitting onstage as a co-chairman of the convention, stares at her with what one of his aides will later describe as “a face filled with awe.”

Until Texas gubernatorial terms changed from two years to four years in the mid-seventies, most first ladies had little time or inclination to make names for themselves (Nellie Connally excepted). In the four-year era, however, they have become much more visible: Linda Gale White, the wife of Mark White, gained notice for promoting a program to keep kids in school, and Rita Clements, the wife of Bill Clements, made news by raising more than $2 million to renovate the Governor’s Mansion. Yet no first lady has received anything like the attention that Laura Bush has. “For as long as I’ve known her, this is someone who has steadfastly refused to pursue the limelight,” insists Regan Gammon, her best friend since the third grade. But there’s no denying Laura’s high profile. Just as some people are curious to see if George will become as prominent as his father, others wonder if she will turn out to be as popular as her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, one of this century’s best-loved political wives.

Oh, please, Bar is very funny, very acerbic, very entertaining to listen to,” Laura recently told me as

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