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 to Mr. X’s, a spot on the south side of town known for its taquitos and fried chicken livers, where we could smoke and no one could see us.
BDS: There are a lot of references to smoking in the book: kids and parents and smoking at one another’s houses. Did you have a hard time quitting?
LB: Yeah, sure. Years later I read every book in a public library in Kashmere Gardens, in Houston, about trying to quit. My daddy was able to quit only after he had part of his lung removed. That was really part of Texas life in the forties and fifties. All the adults that we knew smoked.
BDS: In many ways you had a perfect childhood in Midland, but all of that changed two days after your seventeenth birthday, on November 6, 1964. You were driving with your friend Judy Dykes, and you were on your way to see a movie. You ran a stop sign at the intersection of Big Spring and the Loop, on the north side of town, and you hit a car driven by your friend and classmate Mike Douglas, killing him. You write, “In the aftermath, all I felt was guilty, very guilty. In fact, I still do. It is a guilt I will carry for the rest of my life, far more visible to me than the scar etched in the bump on my knee.”
LB: I tried to write about it in a way that was very candid. It was a terrible, terrible life experience. Any accident would have been bad, but an accident that caused a death—and beyond that the death of my really close friend—made it even more tragic and horrible. Everyone knew and loved Mike; he and Regan had even dated. We had been friends for years. George and I hosted a reunion at the White House for the class of 1964, and many of those people had been close friends of Mike’s.
BDS: Afterward you say that friends and family came over to talk to your parents, but no one ever really talked about it with you, not even your mom and dad.
LB: I think that was the way that people lived back then, especially in West Texas. You didn’t talk about things that bothered you. And that’s probably the signal that I gave to them. Certainly Regan and I have talked about it over the years. The only comfort I’ve found is that time does pass. But the lesson is also that there isn’t anything you can do about some things, as much as you wish that weren’t the case. You just deal with it. So I dealt with it by not talking about it.
BDS: You also didn’t attend the funeral, and you say that you still regret that you never reached out to the Douglases, because you assumed that they wouldn’t want to hear from you.
LB: If I had had any more maturity, I probably would have realized that wasn’t the case. But I didn’t. And there were certain things related to the accident that I didn’t realize until later in life, when I had Barbara and Jenna and I was a mother. And I didn’t understand until I was writing the book how it looked through Mother’s and Daddy’s eyes. I never thought of what they thought or how sick they must have been with worry or grief. I always thought of it only from my viewpoint. It wasn’t until I was a sixty-year-old woman writing the book that I thought about it from someone else’s perspective.
BDS: You must have worried every time Barbara and Jenna left with their friends in high school.
LB: Exactly. I always worried about what could happen to them—and what did happen to some of their friends. They didn’t know about the accident until a DPS agent told them when George was governor and we were living in Austin. I’m sure the officer who told them assumed they did know and that it was just part of a conversation. We had never told them.
BDS: Just a few months after the accident, you were headed to Dallas as an undergraduate at Southern Methodist University. Was that a difficult transition?
LB: It wasn’t so much a transition from Midland to the big city as it was a transition to college life and living with other people. After all those years of being an only child, I went off to SMU with a close group of friends, girls I had known my whole life. One of those friends had read a biography of Doak Walker in the seventh grade and gave it to me to read. Her parents had gone to SMU, and she always knew that’s where she was going to go. But that was long before I had any idea where I was going. I was young, still seventeen, and immature, and I think I would have been a better student had I been older. I didn’t have a car when I came to Dallas, and my friends really didn’t either. So we were fairly isolated on campus, though we did go to places like El Toro Room, over on Greenville Avenue.
BDS: On campus you met another woman who would become important in your life, Professor Harryette Ehrhardt, who inspired you to become a librarian.
LB: She was a magnificent teacher. She was a wonderful storyteller and she knew children’s literature very well. She talked about these books in class in a way that made them even better. She enhanced them. She had such an impact on me, but I didn’t see her again until George was elected governor and she was serving in the state House of Representatives.
BDS: As a Democrat, correct?
LB: Yes, as a Democrat. A liberal Democrat, I might add.
BDS: You would go on to live and work in Houston and Austin, but it would still be several years before you would meet George back in Midland.
LB: Midland is what he remembers as his childhood, and we both went to San Jacinto Junior High together. But we didn’t know each other then—we just passed in the halls. His family then moved to Houston when he was in the eighth grade. Years later, when he came back to fly for the Texas Air National Guard in Houston, we both lived at the Chateaux Dijon, but our apartments were on opposite sides and we never met, which was great, because it probably would not have been the right time for us. Then, when I went back home one summer to see my parents, when I was a librarian at Molly Dawson Elementary, in Austin, our friends Joey O’Neill and his wife, Jan, invited us to dinner.
BDS: In fact, you two hit it off and went on a date the very next day at what you call the most beautiful place in Midland: the miniature-golf course.
LB: If you can imagine. It’s because of those beautiful old trees. There are no native trees in Midland. The miniature-golf course had these amazing elms.
BDS: Would it have been possible for you to imagine on that night that your relationship would eventually lead you to the White House?
LB: No, not at all. His dad was the candidate. When I lived in Houston, he had run for the U.S. Senate, and some of my friends worked as volunteers on that campaign. So I was aware of that. And then when I met George, I knew he was interested in running for Congressman George Mahon’s seat. It sounded like a great adventure, and it was. We were in his Cutlass together all day, driving from town to town, going to Hereford or wherever, just talking. It was a great way to start a marriage.
BDS: Speaking of Congressman Mahon, you write that in 1969 you went to Washington and applied for a job in his office, but you didn’t get it because you didn’t know how to type.
LB: Those seemingly coincidental moments are so interesting. To think that if my life had turned off in any of those directions—for instance, if I had stayed in Washington and worked for Congressman Mahon, I would have lived a very different life. And meeting George the way I did, I think that’s just how life is in Texas, for people who have grown up here and lived in a lot of different towns. You meet new people because of the people you already know. You have a large network of friends.
BDS: You said that you were able to have a fairly normal life in Austin, but that obviously changed when you moved to Washington. How did being the first lady of Texas prepare you for life in the White House?
LB: It was very helpful to have been the first lady of Texas, just for the easiest, the most mundane things: how to do the Christmas card or how to entertain. I already had a lot of ideas about that. When we moved to Washington, it wasn’t something I had to worry about. Of course, I had watched Barbara Bush as the first lady of the United States. When we moved to Austin, we never dreamed we would move to Washington. So having had the Bushes as my parents was very beneficial in helping me to learn to be both first lady of Texas and of the United States. And I carried a lot of the same issues with me: early childhood cognitive development and the Texas Book Festival. It made sense to try to develop a national book festival. Every part of that experience really helped me.
BDS: You have also mentioned Lady Bird Johnson as one of your role models, and she once dictated into her diary about the stress of living in the White House. Shortly after LBJ became president, she noted that some tension had developed between them, saying, “If there was anything of a gulf between me and him, there never was anything of a gulf between Lynda Bird and him, so I wanted her to be there.” Did being in the White House ever cause friction between you and President Bush?
LB: No, it really didn’t. There’s something about being there together and being in this situation together that brought us even closer. We have a very close relationship, and we always have. I think that just being in the same room together is comforting for us. I always thought that we had each other’s back in a way that I think is really necessary. George has said, “Living in the White House is a little like living in a museum.” And if you don’t live there with love, it can be a really cold place.
BDS: Certainly the nation went through a number of traumatic events during your husband’s administration. Were there things, however, that you thought the national media never understood about his presidency?
LB: Oh, yeah, of course. Lots of things [laughs]. I’m being facetious. What I think happens is that we’re in this 24-hour news cycle and there’s no time for reflection. One of the things I’ve tried to do is to remind people what it was like on September 11, how we were all unified and vulnerable and grieving. I’ve tried to remind people of the anxiety that everyone had. We had that anxiety every single day while living in the White House. That’s what I guess is called the burden—if there is such a thing—of the office. Even in the best of times you worry. Every day something new comes across the desk of the president, so it’s hard even for the president to find time to reflect. You’re too much in the moment of what’s happening right then. George believes that it is the responsibility of the president to try to look ahead and to think, “What’s going to happen in five years?” That’s something we’ve enjoyed as we’ve been writing our books [President Bush’s memoir, Decision Points, is scheduled to be released on November 9]. He’s found it very interesting to have the chance to reflect on his time in office.
BDS: Looking back now, are there issues or initiatives that you feel were left unfinished? Do you have any regrets from your time in Washington?
LB: The specific thing that I think about is the construction of the hospital in Basra that we worked on for so long, and today I don’t even know what the status of it is. But I don’t have regrets. I did the very best I could, and I think I did a lot. Of course, many of the issues you work on will never be finished. When it comes to early childhood education, for example, there will always be a new first-grade class. There will always be a new crop of teachers.
BDS: Last September I attended a luncheon in which you were honored by M.â€ŠD. Anderson as a living legend. The talk of the day was about the controversy surrounding President Barack Obama’s decision to address the nation’s schoolchildren. Someone asked you about that and you replied, “I’m out of that business.” But can a member of the Bush family really ever be out of politics?
LB: I think what I meant was I wasn’t interested in making political commentary. We are still in the policy business, and that’s what we want to do with the Bush Institute at SMU. But George has also chosen not to get involved in any political commentary. He thinks he owes it to the office of the president not to second-guess the current president.
BDS: Clearly there are members of the family who continue to have an interest in politics. Is that something you see as a future path for either Barbara or Jenna?
LB: You know, I think the Bushes were gratified that both George and Jeb were interested in politics, because you don’t know if running for office is going to be too difficult on your children. So I think they were pleased because that meant they didn’t ruin their lives after all. As for Barbara or Jenna, I doubt that they will ever run, but you never say never.