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 she sat with one leg folded underneath her in her small windowless office in the basement of the Capitol. “I’m, well, none of those things.” At fifty, she is a pretty woman with startling blue eyes who wears tailored suits that she buys at chic Dallas boutiques. But compared to her famously ebullient husband—when I walked into his office to interview him for this story, the fifty-year-old governor stood up behind his desk, pumped his fist in the air, and shouted, “Dude!”—Laura is unassuming enough that she is often overlooked in public. Watching her at a party at the Governor’s Mansion after the Notre Dame—University of Texas football game in September, I noticed that she preferred standing at the edge of the crowd, chatting quietly with friends. A few days earlier, at a large society gala at Dallas—Fort Worth International Airport, I watched her slip in so unobtrusively that people at the tables next to hers gasped in surprise when she was introduced and asked to stand.

Yet despite her innate reserve, Laura Bush has begun to transform herself into one of the most effective first ladies in Texas history. She is leading a statewide campaign to raise money to improve community literacy programs. She has become a vocal promoter of literary Texas, creating the first-ever Texas Book Festival (to be held this month in Austin) and personally soliciting the participation of more than one hundred Texas authors, including Larry L. King and Larry McMurtry. And she has forged an alliance with Jan Bullock, the wife of Democratic lieutenant governor Bob Bullock, and Nelda Laney, the wife of Democratic House Speaker Pete Laney, to persuade collectors of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Texas art to donate all or part of their holdings, which would be exhibited in the restored Capitol.

You have to remember that this was a woman who used to think a good speech was putting her finger to her mouth in a school library and telling her students, ‘Shhhh,’” jokes George W. Bush. “To me, it has been remarkable—and I emphasize the word ‘remarkable’—to watch what has happened to her.”

So far, the only controversy surrounding Laura Bush is whether she and the governor knew each other when they were attending the same junior high school in Midland. Laura says she thinks George knew who she was. George insists that he knew who she was. But Laura’s mother, Jenna Welch, who lives in Midland, told me the governor “is just being diplomatic—I know he doesn’t remember her.”

When they were growing up in the early fifties, Laura’s father (who died in April 1995) was a credit officer and then a homebuilder. George’s father was an Ivy Leaguer who had come to Midland to make his fortune in oil. Although their homes were in adjoining neighborhoods, the two families didn’t cross paths. The Bushes went to a Presbyterian church, the Welches to a Methodist church. Nor did it seem that George and Laura had anything in common. According to his own mother, George was “incorrigible” and relentlessly sarcastic; Laura was a conscientious student who wore glasses.

Laura stayed in Midland through high school, then attended Southern Methodist University, where she majored in

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