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.