Laura Bush Writes a Guarded Book

Wednesday, 12 May 2010 10:24 AM

By Ronald Kessler

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Because he kept us safe for eight years and transformed our approach to counterterrorism, George Bush will one day be seen as one of our great presidents.

What often undermined the Bush presidency was his refusal to explain himself. As one example, when reports first surfaced about use of enhanced interrogation techniques, Bush rebuffed advice from his counterterrorism aides to explain to the public that these techniques had led to roll-ups of terrorists who were plotting to kill thousands of Americans.

As a result, the narrative of the liberal media took hold, portraying techniques that inflicted no pain as torture.

In the same way, Laura Bush was one of our great first ladies — classy, committed to important causes, and calming after 9/11. But like her husband, in her book “Laura Bush: Spoken From the Heart,” she studiously avoids telling stories that would refute the stereotypes concocted by Bush detractors.

To be sure, Laura is candid about her upbringing. She vividly portrays growing up in the ’60s, when smoking cigarettes and climbing out a window in the middle of the night to walk around in pajamas with girlfriends was considered daring.

Junior high dances “were real dances, with hired bands and couples twisting and turning on the dance floor,” Laura writes. “Before each dance, most boys sent a corsage of roses or gardenias, sometimes orchids if the date was very special. After the girls had worn them, they tacked the corsages to droop and dry on the bulletin boards that were staples in every bedroom and that held such other prized possessions as the folded-up paper notes that were passed in class and occasional pictures of friends.”

Laura talks about her guilt after killing one of her close high school friends in a car accident and her regret that she did not attend the funeral. But in her account of her adult life, she covers herself with a veil, telling us little that is revealing about her or her husband.

As one example of what she could have said, on May 30, 2003, Bush held a reception for his Yale classmates as part of the 35th reunion of the Class of ’68. Bush invited seven of his Yale friends and their wives to stay over at the White House.

The guests illustrated the diversity of Bush’s friends. One of them, lawyer Roland W. Betts, was a Democrat who married Lois Phifer, an African-American teacher Betts met when he was an assistant principal at a public school in central Harlem.

Muhammad Saleh, a Timex vice president, was a Muslim from Jordan. Donald Etra was a lawyer in Los Angeles. An orthodox Jew, Etra was a liberal Democrat. As a criminal defense lawyer, Etra was opposed to many of the provisions of the Patriot Act. Several times since 9/11, Etra had discussed his reservations with Bush.

But while Bill Clinton would parade Vernon Jordan around, Bush and Laura consider details of their friendships private.

Laura mentions the No Child Left Behind Act, yet even though she was a teacher who taught reading, she never mentions that one of its primary goals — which she pushed in the White House — was to reintroduce phonics, or sounding out letters, to the instruction of reading. That is a key reason reading scores, especially among African-Americans, have begun to rise since introduction of the act.

Laura describes her public appearances, but she never says how she influenced Bush behind the scenes.

The Bush administration asked for her opinion and for any suggestions she might have on possible appointments and on issues affecting a range of agencies dealing with subjects which she committed herself to promoting or in which she had a strong interest.

They included such areas as education, the arts, women’s rights, juveniles with social problems, AIDS, libraries, and the humanities. Because of her input, budgets for some agencies were increased or not cut. In one case, a well-connected top political appointee who had engaged in deceit never took his post because of her take on the issue.

“If it’s a particular interest of the first lady, we will pay attention to the funding for those programs, and they will always prevail,” Clay Johnson, Bush’s Yale roommate who became deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, told me for my book “Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady.”

None of this is in Laura’s book. Indeed, as first lady, Laura was so averse to becoming the center of attention that she instructed Andi Ball, her first chief of staff, never to give her a speech with the word “I” in it. She refused to watch herself on TV. For a time, she referred to her effort to write her memoirs as “the damned book project,” she told The Washington Post.

That aversion to calling attention or to explaining oneself goes back to both Bushes’ upbringing in arid Midland, Texas, where humility is prized and talking about one’s personal life to make a point is considered pandering.
At the same time, Midland, where fortunes were made in oil, instilled in both Bushes a tremendous sense of optimism.

“The sky is the limit” is Midland’s motto. That spirit has “something to do with the landscape because the sky is so huge,” Laura once told the Midland Reporter-Telegram. “There is a real feeling of unlimited possibilities here. Also, I think the people that the oil business attracts to living here are risk-takers and optimists, or they would not be in that business.”

The qualities that impeded her writing a more illuminating book are the same ones that made her an admirable first lady. In her book, Laura recounts Teresa Heinz Kerry’s nasty remark about her during the last campaign: “I don’t know that she’s ever had a real job . . . ”

Making excuses for her, Laura writes that Kerry — now known as Teresa Heinz — had no idea that before marrying George, she had been a librarian and a teacher for more than 10 years.

“I was never offended,” Laura writes. Although she does not say this, that night at dinner, Jenna and Barbara Bush expressed outrage at Heinz’s comment. But Laura talked about how easy it was for words to be twisted and taken out of context.

That positive approach sums up Laura Bush — and why her book is worth reading.

Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.

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