- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 1, 2006

LAURA BUSH: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT OF THE FIRST LADY

By Ronald Kessler.

Doubleday, $26, 288 pages

REVIEWED BY MURIEL DOBBIN

Writing about the wife of the president of the United States is not easy. Her biographers are trapped between doing a hatchet job, which is easy but nearly always unfair, or a puff piece which is so eager to please that it doesn’t do its subject justice.

This biography is described as “the only book to be written about Laura Bush with White House cooperation” and the White House should be happy with the results although the First Lady might chuckle over a portrayal of a her as a woman virtually without flaw. The question is whether the book offers the reader more insight into the personality and thoughts of a very private First Lady than has been already published about her over the past five years.

Mrs Bush is a traditional First Lady in that she doesn’t enjoy down and dirty politics, she is protective of her family and its privacy and she has no political ambitions of her own.

In those respects she has followed in the footsteps of most of her predecessors with the exception of Sen. Hillary Clinton, who was deeply political and a vigorous and at times controversial participant in her husband’s policies. However, Mrs. Bush has also emerged as an intelligent woman evidently tough-minded enough to come to terms with the world of the Bush political dynasty — from her formidable mother in law, Barbara Bush, to her marriage to a man who may well owe his sobriety and political status to a wife with the strength to quietly assert herself and draw her own battle lines if she found it necessary.

Which undoubtedly is why, as Mr. Kessler reports, the president respects his wife’s intelligence and pays attention to her opinions.

Yet despite the author’s proclaimed access to the “secret world of the Bushes” his book does not suggest he spent a lot of time in the kind of conversation with the First Family that would have told the reader who she is and how she thinks.

The voice of Laura Bush is oddly lacking in a book filled with often fulsome quotations from her friends, who are tracked down from her childhood in Midland, Texas, to her life in the White House. They sing the praises of Laura the girl and Mrs Bush the woman in a manner that might make their subject wriggle with embarrassment.

A typical quote comes from Katharine Armstrong, a Texas friend, who says of Mrs Bush’s reaction to the September 11 attacks, “Laura just rolls up her sleeves and she rises to the occasion. She is just a lady in every way.”

From Harriet Miers, once President Bush’s choice as a Supreme Court Justice, “She epitomizes what the President refers to as the American spirit … Her strength, intelligence, composure and genuineness endear her to all Americans except the most partisan.”

From former White House chief of staff Andy Card, “We all know that politics is not her first second or third love … . She loves her husband , her daughters, her friends. She loves people.”

From Marge Petty another friend, “The truth about Laura is she fits wherever she is. Her world is not about her. Her world is about what’s around her.”

Unfortunately all that this tells you is that her friends are very fond of her. Mr. Kessler’s choice of “revelations” about the Bushes ranges from appropriate to irrelevant.

It is interesting how Pamela Nelson, a friend of the First Lady, described her sharp reaction to a Newsweek magazine story about a Koran being flushed down a toilet. According to Ms. Nelson’s account, Mrs. Bush refused to read the magazine, denounced the item as “irresponsible” and complained about the American failure to understand how such items could have “a ripple effect around the world.”

But why would the author include in a description of activities during a weekend at the Bushes’ Texas ranch, a disclosure that “Laura put on Marvin Gaye full blast as they sipped coffee with whipped cream on the porch.”

Or attribute her temporary reluctance to do press interviews to a comment from her press secretary — not Mrs Bush — that the First Lady felt that it was “egotistical.”

She may spend a lot of time reading quietly by herself, yet Mrs. Bush has proved herself a woman who is not shy about taking positions and who has shown a capacity for political pragmatism. That was demonstrated in her handling of Teresa Heinz Kerry’s public apology for an illspoken and inaccurate assertion that the First Lady had “never had a real job.”

Mrs Bush, who was a librarian for years, reacted smoothly and shrewdly when she declined to take a personal call of apology from Mrs Heinz Kerry — which would have enhanced the visibility of the story. Mrs Bush defused the situation by telling her assistant to assure the wife of the Democratic presidential candidate that she (the First Lady) “understands that when you talk to the media things get said that you didn’t quite say or mean to say.”

It could be argued that Laura Bush doesn’t take herself as seriously as this book does and it’s difficult to believe she could read this collection of accolades without laughing.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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