[23 February 2011]
For those readers looking for reason to mock the American institution of First Lady, there is a golden opportunity about two-thirds of the way through Laura Bush’s memoir, Spoken From the Heart, out this spring in paperback. Talking about an impending state visit to the White House by Poland’s then-president, Aleksander Kwaśniewski and his wife Jolanta, Laura Bush notes that, “(f)or the Kwaśniewskis, the tables were decorated with red and white roses and daisies, in honor of the Polish flag. I had once heard the horrible tale of an official dinner where the flower arrangements had been in the colors of the guest nation’s mortal enemy, and I was deeply conscious of the flowers we chose. For the place settings, I had selected Nancy Reagan’s red china…”
Quite apart from the unintentionally amusing reference to “Red China”, it’s easy enough to draw invidious conclusions from this passage pertaining to triviality, banal domesticity, and an obsessive focus on surface appearances. Really, not long after 9/11, the First Lady was actually “deeply conscious of the flowers (she) chose”? And what about the fact that back in the early-‘80s Nancy Reagan’s acquisition of new china—presumably the very same dinner pieces Laura Bush was now using for the Polish president—was itself the subject of lacerating media criticism for its presumed extravagance and supposed insensitivity during a recession?
Yet imagine if Laura Bush had been less obsessed with surface appearances and had unthinkingly decorated the Kwaśniewskis’ table with red and yellow roses and daisies, rather than red and white. A small-enough shift in the color spectrum, to be sure, but its resonance with the flag of the former Soviet Union could very likely have set off a decent-sized diplomatic contretemps, accompanied by cutting references to the Katyn Forest Massacre, 17 September 1939, and other deeply painful places and events for the people of Poland.
In short, in diplomacy as in every other sphere of life, little things means a lot, symbolism is almost always more than “just symbolic”, and the privileges of living one’s life on the public stage bring with it enormous responsibilities not to make thoughtless and insensitive mistakes.
Somehow, though, Laura Bush largely avoided the public slanderings that Nancy Reagan endured and that, to a lesser extent, Michelle Obama is now enduring, even though George W. Bush himself was perhaps the most excoriated President in recent American history. Whether or not he deserved every bit of this criticism, and whether he was on the receiving end of more calumny than, say, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, is another subject for another time and another writer.
For the purposes of this essay, one wonders, What was it about Laura Bush that made her, generally speaking, such a well-liked public figure even as her husband was embroiled in some of the most controversial decision-making of the post-war period? How did she, in effect, avoid mixing the red and yellow flowers, and on those rare occasions where she did get the symbolism wrong, avoid being raked over the coals for it? There are plenty of clues in this mostly absorbing and well-written memoir.
The early parts of Spoken From the Heart are especially good. If it were possible for a moment to forget that the author met and married a privileged young man who would go on to become President of the United States, one could read these opening chapters as an evocative and, yes, modestly literary memoir that deserved being published on its own merits for its clarity, its sincerity and its real human feeling.
Here’s how the whilom Laura Welch (who composed this book with the assistance of the beautifully named writer Lyric Wallwork Winik) sets the scene for everything that follows:
Some 300 million years ago, the oceans overran much of the earth’s land. The place I know as West Texas was nothing more than a vast floor at the bottom of the tepid Permian Sea. Slowly, over the millennia, the waters began to recede. Reefs and shell banks collapsed into dry ground. Twelve thousand feet of sand, limestone, and silica were left behind by the sea’s ebb, collecting in what is known as the Permian basin. Then the water swept in one last time. Clay and limestone, prehistoric boulders and debris were strewn across the valley, producing a long, continuous plain, with the remnants of this ancient sea floor buried underneath. And among the fossilized fish and shells and curious spiny creatures that once plumbed its depths, pools of oil and pockets of natural gas formed. The roughly 100,000 square miles of Permian Basin land in West Texas and New Mexico are thought to hold significant portions of the United States’ oil and natural gas reserves. Midland, Texas, sits in the basin’s geographic center. When oil was found, Midland was where the oilmen came.
Thus, a neat history of the geology of the region, combined with a reminder of how George Bush pere et fils made their fortunes, and an explanation of why the Midland, Texas of the mid-20th century was characterized by oilmen who “...teed off at the country club in the middle of a weekday afternoon, and gambled outrageous sums on every hole…” The wives, meanwhile, “...glittered with diamonds” and took “jet rides for an afternoon of shopping in Dallas at Neiman Marcus…(and) planned spectacular parties and flew in the bands and the caterers.”
But what of Laura Welch herself? She, in contrast to he, grew up in relatively modest circumstances, and was bookish nearly from birth, a shy only child and a “homebody” who retreated even further into books after she accidentally kills a good friend and classmate in a car accident, an event that she covers frankly and painfully in this narrative. Her reversion to the world of books was influenced, in large part, by her mother:
When I came through the door in the afternoon, I was greeted by the soft rustle of book pages and my mother, her feet propped up, book open on her lap. My mother loved to read. Her canon ranged from the traditional to the eclectic, writers like John Marquand and Somerset Maugham. She loved Willa Cather, especially Death Comes for the Archbishop. She read eagerly about the Southwest; it didn’t matter whether the story was set in far West Texas or New Mexico or Arizona. She read books about anthropology, native peoples, and early explorers. She delved into naturalists, like Loren Eiseley. And she read to me, her voice weaving its spells of character, plot, and place, until I too yearned to decipher the fine black letters printed on the page.
And when Laura did become old enough to decipher the mysterious codes with which adults transcend the barriers of consciousness, it wasn’t only books she “read”. She did the same thing with some horrifying pictures her father had brought home from his service in the Second World War:
He finally arrived home in January of 1946. Along with his meager gear, he carried with him eight tiny two-by-three-inch photos from Nordhausen, Germany, the site of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. Mother kept them along with some letters in an old latch-top cigar box. As a child, I used to take them out one by one and examine them, holding them up to the light to study the tiny images frozen in time by the camera’s lens, trying to decipher them. They were pictures of row upon row of bodies of the dead, some bloated, some so skeletal that they were little more than bones with the last remnants of skin stretched over them, stark white, sunken torsos in which you could count every rib. There were three separate rows of bodies, some naked, some still wearing the rough striped pants and shirts that the Nazis had forced upon them. A few were covered, looking like hastily wrapped mummies in half decay. My dad had written on the back of one of the photos how the lines of corpses continued well beyond “the second white building.” On another photo, showing the grotesque contorted final dreath grips of naked men, he wrote, after a long explanation, “Tear it up if you wish.” But no one ever could, ever did, ever wanted to.
Later, in her young adulthood, Laura becomes a teacher and then a librarian, acquires a cat named Dewey (for, of course, the eponymous decimal system) and, after her marriage to George, continues to be an inveterate reader. And here, I think, lies some of the secret to her appeal. Literature inculcates in the reader an appreciation for simply stated truths and, at the same time, for the ungraspable—the minuscule and difficult to translate, but nonetheless deeply meaningful signs and symbols and gestures that constitute our existences. Her readings encompassed evil—the concentration camp photographs—and innocence, though innocence of a sort that is informed by darkness and mortality, as in her enchantment, when a student, by the morally fraught works of E.B. White, Laura Ingalls and the Brothers Grimm. In sum, she learned from an early age that words and appearances have meanings, that signs and symbols matter, and that the difference between a grouping of red and white flowers on one hand, and red and yellow on the other, can be no less meaningful at times than the difference between a cross and a swastika.
We may or may not be living in a post-literary age, but the power of meaningful symbols, assisted and magnified by social media and global, 24-hour television coverage, is only growing greater. The spirit of the mostly peaceful protesters in Egypt, for example, was animated by an appreciation of the ability of universally understood words and images to confront illicit power (in a manner vastly more effective, it should be noted, than suicide bombers and assorted other terrorists.) Power has a way to reassert itself, of course, and we have yet to see how the Egyptian narrative will play out, or that of the equally oppressed people of Iran and Syria, but those who support genuine freedom, as opposed to the fake kind proffered by murderous “freedom fighters”, have to be heartened by what has happened.
While her husband’s efforts on behalf of Arab democracy are fraught with moral complexity and plagued by muddled results, Laura Bush’s own work on behalf of the oppressed women and children of Afghanistan has been universally praised. Afghanistan, some may need reminding, is a place where girls not only cannot read Charlotte’s Web, or whatever its Pashto-language equivalent might be, but it’s also a place where members of the Taliban will throw acid in the faces of girls who dare presume to attend school. In the eternal battle between the librarian and the barbarian, Laura Bush had a real role to play as First Lady that extended far beyond state dinners, as important as they may be, and she played it well.
After the first 150 pages or so, this memoir peters out a bit, as the pressures Laura Bush felt as an official personage begin to iron out her individuality, and as she begins to launch into a rote recitation of her duties as a First Lady. That’s not good for this book, perhaps, but it’s another reminder of just how hard she worked in the role that was thrust upon her and that no First Lady, probably, can ever fully prepare for.
Laura Bush was a First Lady, but she was also a mother and wife and an independent human being, and there was a lot more to her, for better and for worse, than just her sensitivity or her literary sensibility. Nonetheless, it was that sensibility that makes this book partially successful and her legacy wholly so.