Long before Laura Welch met an aspiring politician named George W. Bush, she defined herself by the city where she had been born and raised: Midland. Though she lived all across the state as a young woman—she earned a bachelor’s degree in Dallas, she taught elementary school in Houston, and she worked as a librarian in Austin—she was a pure product of West Texas. Her mother came from El Paso, her father from Lubbock. She had deep roots across the region, and as a little girl she spent hours in the car traveling between cities with her parents. In Midland, isolated in that vast expanse of desert and sky, she learned to be independent, to work hard, and to accept the fact that people didn’t talk much about their problems. She took those values with her, all the way to the Governor’s Mansion and, ultimately, the White House.
However, as she writes in her new memoir, Spoken From the Heart, she never had such lofty aspirations. The daughter of a hardworking homebuilder (who enjoyed playing gin rummy and betting on football games) and a stay-at-home mom (who loved birding and reading), she was a model student who had a nearly idyllic childhood of sleepovers, swimming parties, and nights at the drive-in—until two days after her seventeenth birthday, when a tragic accident changed her life forever.
Now 63, she has returned to Dallas with President Bush to a spacious ranch-style home on Daria Place, in Preston Hollow, about six hours away from the house she lived in on the corner of Estes and Big Spring when she was 8. The Bushes have begun work on what she describes as the most important project left in their lives, the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the campus of Southern Methodist University, where she first struck out on her own, 46 years ago. Yet she remains an unlikely international figure who never forgot her roots: a former librarian who once read Russian novels by the pool before she became a key witness to some of the most critical events of the early twenty-first century.
Brian D. Sweany: You and President Bush have been back in Texas for more than a year now. How have you adjusted to private life?
Laura Bush: We feel great. George and I are very happy to be back home in Texas, the “promised land,” as he calls it. We are unbelievably grateful to have had the opportunity to live in Washington in our magnificent White House. And now we are happy to be home and lead a normal life. I didn’t really know I was stressed when I lived there until after we had left. I write this in the book, but all of a sudden there was buoyancy to my life that I had forgotten I had ever had. The memoir ended up being psychologically cathartic.
BDS: What was the significance of making Midland your first stop on your way home from Washington?
LB: There was a great sense of security in touching down in Midland after leaving Washington and going to the center of town to meet the thousands of people who were welcoming us home. These are people we had known all of our lives. They were our neighbors or the parents of our friends or people we knew growing up. It was a wonderful feeling of security and, frankly, love. We know those people love us, and we love them.
BDS: You write in Spoken From the Heart, “It helped to be fearless if you lived in Midland.” What did you mean by that?
LB: When we were kids, we did whatever we wanted to do in Midland. We rode our bikes everywhere, we went everywhere, and in many ways we were oblivious to adults. I think that growing up in places like Tyler or Beaumont or other oil towns might have been similar to growing up in Midland. The difference, of course, is that Midland is in West Texas, where we didn’t have trees but we did have sandstorms. My friends and I developed a strong sense of friendship just from being in the same boat—in the sense that Midland was so remote, sitting out there in the desert, and all we knew was living in that space. You remember that beautiful huge sky. And you remember the sound of the cicadas and the feeling of that dry late-afternoon heat.
BDS: Certainly one of the things that you are known for is the creation of the Texas Book Festival, and your mother is the one who first inspired your love of reading when you were young.
LB: She was a great reader, and she even took an extension class on children’s literature in case she wanted to get a teaching certificate. She would discuss all of those great books with me, and we would read them together.
BDS: But not all of the books you read growing up were so tame, right?
LB: Someone started passing around a paperback copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in high school, and they had put the cover of another book on it, as if that was the most risqué thing to read. I read it in a math or science class with my textbook propped up in front of it. I did that a lot, in fact. I’d find myself in the middle of a book that I didn’t want to put down, so I’d read it in class when I wasn’t paying that much attention to that particular subject.
BDS: How did you and your friends spend time outside class?
LB: What we did a lot was drive around, of course. All of us did. We drove around with our boyfriends, with groups of girls, going from Agnes’s Drive-in for a Coke to the drive-in theaters that ringed Midland to watch a movie. My friend Regan Gammon [a founder and a member of the executive board of the Texas Book Festival] and I would drive out