In Spoken From the Heart, Laura Bush writes evocatively of her childhood in Midland, a place of endless skies and stinging sandstorms. Though she lived for six years in the Governor’s Mansion and another eight in the White House, it was the time she spent on the high plains of West Texas that made her who she is today. Midland was where she found friends that would last a lifetime—and met an aspiring politician named George W. Bush. I visited with Mrs. Bush in the library of her home in Dallas.
Jake Silverstein: This is a very lovely home. Actually, this room is quite nice, I was just saying—
Laura Bush: It is, it is.
JS: —it’s a wonderful room.
LB: It was a real selling point when I came to look at the house. The guy we bought the house from had a great collection of new first editions.
JS: Oh, wow.
LB: And so he’d have a section of books, all, you know, the jackets covered in the Mylar covers. And then next to it would be a little snapshot of him with Larry McMurtry, or him with John Updike. I think he’s active in the Arts & Letters Live in Dallas. So, he would go here and read and get a picture.
JS: And now Dallas—obviously both then and now, and even before then with family connections—has been an important city for you, but when you left Washington, the first place you went to was Midland.
LB: We went back home to Midland for the very first day. Flew low over Midland so the thirty thousand people that had congregated in downtown Midland could see it. And then we rode in a motorcade from the airport back to downtown. And that’s what we had done when we left Texas. We had stopped on our way to Washington in Midland, because Midland was our childhood home, both of us. George moved to Midland when he was four and left when he was in the eighth grade, and so really we have a lot of the same friends from those years, even though we went to two different elementary schools. So it was great to be home and to be in Midland. We got there just as the sun set. We could see how beautiful the sky is at home in Texas.
JS: You’re from a very unique place. Can you just describe for somebody who’s encountering it for the first time, what it feels like to be in this place?
LB: Well, Midland is perfectly flat—and very few trees. In fact, there are really no native trees. When I was little, Midland was really during the middle of a dust bowl, it was a longtime drought in the early part of the fifties and, you know, it’s a really sort of hardscrabble life in Midland. That’s what the landscape is like. But the sky is magnificent. And the view of the sky is never obscured because there aren’t any trees.
LB: One of the things my mother liked to do—my mother, growing up in far West Texas in El Paso, so she knew that great West Texas sky—was lie on the ground in the summer on blankets and look up at the stars. And I remember that.
JS: You would identify constellations?
LB: She’d point out constellations. Of course, mainly the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper, the easiest ones to find.
JS: That’s great. Now, the driving culture was so important in Midland. How old did kids learn to drive out there?
LB: Well, we got our driver’s license when we were fourteen—on our fourteenth birthday—and that was the law in Texas then. Of course, we started driving before that with driver’s ed. And we drove every once in a while at twelve and then at thirteen and then got our driver’s license at fourteen, and that was really what we did. That’s what we did on dates, you drove around at night and might go to the drive-in movie, but you’d definitely go to Agnes’s, the drive-in, and get a Coke, or some of the other drive-ins that were in Midland—A&W Root Beer and Mr. X and the Rendezvous, those were the drive-ins.
JS: And so Agnes’s, that was the main one.
LB: That was the main one.
JS: So what was the scene on like a Friday or Saturday night?
LB: Well, the Friday or Saturday night would be a lot of cars parked in the front of Agnes’s for a long time. You’d stay there for a long time. You’d order a Coke, but you’d, you know, stay there longer than that, because we didn’t eat out. We didn’t order hamburgers. I mean, we ate at home.
JS: You mentioned earlier how so many of these friends are still very close friends of yours. You had a real cohort out there. What were some of the kind of innocent escapades that y’all got into?
LB: We liked to sneak out of our houses, especially at slumber parties, and walk around out in Midland, probably in our pajamas.
JS: Just out on the sidewalks?
LB: Just on the sidewalk.
JS: Middle of the night?
LB: Just in the middle of the night, walk around. It probably wasn’t even the middle of the night, it was probably eleven or something, but that was really late for us.
LB: And that was what we thought was pretty wild to do, and that was the sneaking out, not telling the parents. Boys would come stand at our windows and talk through the windows in the middle of the night, but I never did sneak out with any of the boys out the window. There might have been some girls that did that.
LB: I think one of the things about growing up in Midland, at least for my friends, was that we felt like we were totally free to do anything we wanted. We could walk all over town, we could ride our bicycles, but there was a lot of security in knowing people your whole life that you started first grade with and still, you know, graduated from high school with, for George and me, because he also went to school there until the seventh grade, so a lot of our closest friends even today were our friends in elementary school. Boys that he played Little League with, and there’s great security in having that kind of history with your friends. As George used to say, his Midland friends would come to the Oval Office and they’d say, “God, I can’t believe I’m here!” and then they’d look at him. [Laughs.] So, you know, you couldn’t get too big of a head about having any kind of elected office because you had all those friends that would remind you.
JS: I want to ask you a little bit about the night this kind of idyllic childhood came to an end for you in a way. Of course, that’s the night of November 6, 1963.
LB: Well, you know, it was a really terrible thing that happened. I was driving with a friend who’s still a friend today that I still see at high school reunions too, and like a lot of other seventeen-year-olds—I just turned seventeen two days before—we had not looked at the newspaper to see what was on at the drive-in movies. We were just going to drive around and look at the movies and then decide which one to go to. And so, we went and drove out north and then got on a loop around Midland, which at the time was a country road, a two-lane country road. Drove to a point where Big Springs Street, this highway to Lubbock runs into it, and just as we got there, she said, “There’s a stop sign”—that I didn’t see, and I couldn’t stop. Another car was coming and, you know, it was a terrible crash and a terrible accident, and I was thrown from the car and she wasn’t, she just got out, but we were both unhurt. But we knew that the other person who was in the car didn’t get up and was obviously thrown out of the car. And in a few minutes, a man drove up and she said, “I think that is that person’s father,” and I said, “Well, you know, I don’t think so. That’s Mr. Douglas.” And it was, it was Mike Douglas’s father. And Mike Douglas, who was killed in the car accident, was one of my longtime best friends, he was a very close friend of mine, and it was. It was Mike Douglas’s father. And Mike Douglas, who was killed in the car accident, was one of my longtime best friends, he was a very close friend of mine, and it was a, you know, it was a tragic, terrible, terrible accident that did, in many ways, bring to an end that feeling of security that I’d had before that.
JS: You write about, in the book, about how so many people came to talk to your parents in the aftermath of this accident, but that nobody really talked to you, not even your mom and dad. How’d you carry that burden all by yourself?
LB: Well, I think that’s just sort of how the times were and how West Texas was where—and plus, I felt really terribly guilty and ashamed, and so I didn’t really want to talk about it with anyone. I’m sure our minister came to the house—and I don’t really remember that—but I’m sure he must have, and visited with me, and mother, and daddy.
JS: And you were unable to go to the funeral or talk to—?
LB: I didn’t go to the funeral, and then I never went to speak with the Douglases, which now in retrospect, I can’t believe either. But no one encouraged me to. No one said, “I think you should do this.” And, you know, my parents didn’t. I think they probably thought like I did, that, you know, that the Douglases wouldn’t really want to see me. And in a lot of ways, I guess they thought they were protecting me from it. But, you know, that’s something that I feel really bad about, because, of course, it ruined their life. You know, there’s no way to get over that kind of loss. And I know it did, I mean I know that they were sad for the rest of their lives and, you know, their heart was broken.