This month, executive editor Mimi Swartz paints a picture of Laura Bush by declaring the first lady a blank slate. Here, Swartz discusses how Laura Bush ranks with other presidential wives, how she’s perceived by the public, and how she puts Texas in the White House.
texasmonthly.com: Comparisons are made between Laura Bush and her role model, Lady Bird Johnson. Do you think she personifies any traits of other former first ladies?
Mimi Swartz: I think she has some of the sly mystery of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and some of Bess Truman’s intense desire to be free of Washington. I wish she were a little more like Betty Ford, who was championed for her frankness. I think it would be great if Laura Bush took a stand against teenage drinking, for instance.
texasmonthly.com: What are some of Laura Bush’s strengths that you think Teresa Heinz Kerry is lacking? What would Teresa Heinz Kerry bring to the table that Laura Bush hasn’t been able to offer?
MS: Laura Bush has some grace and reserve. I think Laura Bush’s very ordinariness makes people love her, and connect with her. At the same time, I like Teresa Heinz Kerry a lot. She’s more in the Hillary Clinton mold, but I think that’s good. Teresa Heinz Kerry, for her wealth, has given generously to charity, and is very sophisticated and international. I think she could be an incredible and active first lady.
texasmonthly.com: Since you discuss the perceptions of politicians in the media, what is your take on the claim that the media is liberally biased?
MS: I think it’s utterly false. There are plenty of very noisy critics and commentators on the right.
texasmonthly.com: You say in your story that Mrs. Bush is “probably our most brilliant first lady to date.” Yet you also call her “indifferent.” This seems like a huge contradiction—how do you think Laura Bush can pull off this brilliant indifference?
MS: She was indifferent at the beginning. She rose to the demands of the job and performed beautifully, particularly during 9/11. Someone had to perform a calming, soothing role for the public, and she was born to do that. But when she isn’t needed, she doesn’t feel the need to be on the public stage, like some of her predecessors. As Washington journalist Sally Quinn suggested to me, maybe these times don’t call for “a sideshow” like the Clinton marriage.
texasmonthly.com: You wrote that Laura Bush is considered by many to be a “Play-Doh” wife, a woman who constantly morphs to fit any given person’s view of her. You have previous press experience with Mrs. Bush—you mention a past interview with her. Do you see her as being elusive?
MS: I see her as being cautious. Laura Bush is a political wife in the most political of political families. She knows exactly what a casual, careless remark can do in these times. She’s also reserved, which works in her favor. Laura Bush is not going to make a mistake, whereas someone like Teresa Heinz Kerry speaks her mind, winning fans and making enemies simultaneously.
texasmonthly.com: If readers finish Laura Bush biographies and feel they know less about her at the end than they did at the beginning, what can they learn of her from your story?
MS: I think they can read my story and understand why those books failed—no fresh reporting, no understanding of where Laura Bush came from. Most of those books were written from news clippings, and she didn’t cooperate with them in any way. The books have a sameness about them that is very dissatisfying.
texasmonthly.com: What have you learned about Laura Bush after conducting interviews and research for your story on the first lady?
MS: I have more respect for her now than I did before. She’s a very smart, very disciplined person, not—as some of her critics believe—a Stepford Wife just doing as she is told. To me, she epitomizes where she came from—a certain part of West Texas and a certain social strata, where it was important to be gracious and kind and not so important to be the star of your own drama every minute of every day.