I like Laura Bush. Blame my attraction to self-possessed middle-aged women. Her fashion sense, skin tone, modesty, obvious intelligence, and gravelly tones (which sound as if they’ve been roughened by brandy and lots of cursin’) — all pluses. It’s no intellectual exercise for me to consider her the best First Lady of the last forty years despite her marriage to the worst president since Warren Harding. I suppose her devotion to literature helps too. I wish I could find the newspaper interview from 2004 in which she says surprisingly apt remarks about Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. Before anyone claims that the Nazis listened to Wagner and Mozart as they sent the hated to Buchenwald, let me remind them that Mrs. Bush wasn’t in power.
The uneven Michiko Kakutani sees the same virtues in her unexpectedly warm review of Mrs. Bush’s memoir:
The opening sections of this book, however, are as revealing and evocative as the later ones are guarded. Writing with impressive recall, Mrs. Bush conjures her hometown, Midland, Tex., with enormous detail, lyricism and feeling. It’s a small town in the 1950s and early 60s, when children looked forward to ice cream sundaes and pony rides, and teenagers hung out at drive-in movies and drive-in restaurants.The world is part “The Last Picture Show” and part “American Graffiti,” but less sophisticated — a place where people gather the tumbleweeds that blow through town in the winter, tie them into threes and spray “them with white flocking to make desert snowmen for their lawns.” A place where people want houses with familiar floor plans (“a living room at the front, a den behind it, and a hallway with three bedrooms”) and think nothing of driving six hours to Dallas or El Paso for something to do.
“It was easy perhaps to be sad in Midland,” Mrs. Bush writes, “sad from loss, sad from loneliness. ‘Terrible winds and a wonderful emptiness’ were the painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s double-edged words about the Texas desert plains, which I read years later, after I was grown.”
Mrs. Bush adds that life with her parents was “not sad,” but a sense of loss and loneliness does blow through her descriptions of her childhood. Her mother had three miscarriages, and those “lost babies” haunted the young Laura. She says she knew how much her father wanted a son, and she longed for siblings when she found herself a solitary “child among the throngs at a crowded amusement park.” Instead there were solo picnics in the park over on the next street and hours spent reading books like Nancy Drew, whom she identified with as another only child.
I know Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife examined how an Isabel Archer at the zenith of power could find shelter in books while a monstrous husband plotted in other rooms. Still, it’s nice to know that Mrs. Bush has a sufficiently literary sensibility to perceive, however indirectly, why it was important to marry this swaggering failure of a man named George Walker Bush. Put aside what we’ve learned in the last eight years. What Mrs. Bush eagerly abandoned in Midland warped her sensibility enough so that she could withstand two presidential terms of smiling through White House functions she may or may not have despised.