First, the prime ministership or presidency. Then the all-important memoir. And as political wives are increasingly thrust into the spotlight, to be ogled as a mix and match of celebrity clothes-horse, social worker to the nation and loyal spouse, there is a growing market for the story of what life is “really like” at the centre of power.
Such memoirs tend to be drippily titled, but are often quite a riveting read. Cherie Blair’s Speaking for Myself was a pacy if passionately partial account of her 10 years in Downing Street. Sarah Brown, with her million followers on Twitter, surely has an eager readership ready to devour her take on life at the top, due out next year.
Spoken from the Heart perfectly fits the personal-is-political template. There is a lot of detail of designer dresses worn, official meals enjoyed, furniture and wallpaper restored, tours conducted and, of course, important political people encountered. Tony and Cherie are particular favourites, as is Nicolas Sarkozy, of all people. Vladimir Putin is given the occasional dressing down on the importance of democracy. Barack Obama is chided for his personal attacks on George during the 2008 campaign. Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and “Condi” Rice are all portrayed as utterly delightful.
So far, so Republican. Yet Laura Bush emerges as a substantial figure, quietly sure of her views on abortion and gay marriage. Admired where her husband was derided, she reveals a steely loyalty to George and traditional family life and a prodigious appetite for independent good works. In generational terms, she stands as the bridge between the Pat Nixon/Norma Major model of political wifehood and later, more flamboyant figures such as Carla Bruni and Michelle Obama. Interestingly, she is resoundingly silent on her successor.
The book is elegantly written – the Bushes frequently being “helicoptered” to various locations aside – and begins with lyrical accounts of the harsh Texan landscape, “a land of magnificent distances and empty range”. An only child, little Laura Welch was clearly much cherished. But like so many American families of that postwar generation, a blend of stoicism, puritanism and middle-class mores frequently resulted in damaging silences about life’s deeper difficulties. No wonder they all drank so hard. To the end of his life, her father kept photographs of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp he had helped liberate during the war, yet he would never discuss what he had seen there. Her parents never spoke of the three babies they lost after Laura was born, including a baby son who lived for a few days.
When, age 17, Laura was involved in a car crash in which a childhood friend was killed, that too was never talked about. She did not attend the funeral or ever speak to her dead friend’s parents – omissions that she now deeply regrets. Yet her own daughters only learned about the crash from their secret service detail when the story became public during the first term of Bush’s presidency. She here describes the accident in painful and moving detail, but it is one of the very few personal areas where she risks full frankness. In fact, much of her account of these early years is unwittingly overshadowed by another book entirely: Curtis Sittenfeld’s 2008 novel, American Wife, based on many of the incidents and passages of Laura’s life, including her grandmother’s alleged lesbianism, her 20s as an unmarried school teacher, her sexually explosive relationship with the carousing son of a Texan political dynasty and subsequent difficulties integrating with his extended clan.
Sittenfeld’s novel is so brilliantly imagined that mere autobiography pales in comparison. Which is rather unfair. Is it really so surprising that we learn nothing about Laura Bush’s sexual life with George, or that she skirts around his early alcoholism or deploys diplomacy in the story of her relationship with Barbara Bush, the clan matriarch? Laura Bush acknowledges that there were some significant early tensions with “Bar”, but claims the two women eventually bonded over a love of art – and George. Good for them, but a bit of a yawn for us.
The other shadow hanging over Spoken from the Heart is, of course, politics. The further the book progresses the clearer it is that Laura Bush has her man and his two-term record to defend. This includes two unpopular foreign wars, accusations of gross mishandling of a major natural disaster (Hurricane Katrina) and the collapse of the banks in the autumn of Bush’s second term. George himself stays largely in the shadows, but Laura never misses an opportunity to defend the actions of his presidency.
Her account of 9/11 and the shadow it casts over America’s skies is well told, but she quickly elides the punishment of Afghanistan with a quasi-feminist mission to save Afghani women from the brutal repression of the Taliban. On Iraq, she presents a picture of a mounting nuclear threat to the west. Yet once the invasion has begun, the American presence is somehow justified on ever-shifting grounds, including the murderous treatment of the Kurds and the barbarous cronyism of Saddam Hussein’s family. In a chilling aside, she describes how, when US troops captured the palace of Saddam’s son Uday, they found the walls plastered with pictures of the Bush twins, Barbara and Jenna – although, rather typically, the girls were not told of the grotesque find.
Bush’s much-criticised failure to visit a devastated New Orleans after Katrina is explained on the grounds of presidential selflessness. “With people still trapped in their flooded homes and thousands not yet evacuated from the Superdome, George did not want a single policy officer or National Guard unit . . . to be diverted from the rescue efforts.” Inevitably, such passages read like lame justifications of generally acknowledged political failings. George fades even further from the centre of the narrative as the story moves to a close. The wife of the US president has unparalleled global reach and influence; even so, we should tip our stetson to Laura Bush for her unflagging work promoting women’s education in Afghanistan, literacy in general, combating Aids in Africa and gang culture in America, and speaking up boldly against military tyranny in Burma. Not bad for the shy young teacher/librarian who only agreed to marry her politically ambitious boyfriend after he had solemnly promised that she would never have to make a campaign speech.
This review was written by Melissa Benn and published in The Guardian.