The Librarians and Barbarians of Laura Bush's Memoir

George & Laura Bush

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. The reasons have something to do with Laura Bush's literary sensibility.

Spoken from the Heart

Publisher: Scribner
Length: 464 pages
Author: Laura Bush
Price: $30.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-05

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.

Next Page

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.