Laura Bush has always been a quiet one. She's private, modest, unambitious. She was reportedly unhappy when her husband ran for public office, didn't aim to influence his policy, and quit her job upon marrying him. She adopted the least partisan causes imaginable: literacy, breast cancer. She seemed like the sort of mild, polite, ordinary woman who might go to church with your mother, or organize suburban potlucks. Her approval ratings stayed high while her husband's tanked; no matter how disastrous his administration became, it was hard to dislike her. She never said enough to offend anyone; the worst you could call her was boring.
That's likely to change, now. Laura Bush—the quiet one, the boring one, the woman too nice to offend—sat down with Larry King Tuesday night to promote her new memoir, Spoken from the Heart. With just a few words, she dismantled much of what we thought we knew. Laura Bush, on same-sex marriage: "When couples are committed to each other, and love each other, they ought to have, I think, the same sort of rights that everyone else has." Laura Bush, on abortion: "I think it's important that it remain legal, because I think it's important for people, for medical reasons, and other reasons."
"I really do understand [President Bush's] viewpoint," she assured King. "And he understands mine." Her head cocked; her eyes widened. For a split second, it was possible to believe not only that George W. Bush understood his wife's approval of marriage-seeking gays and abortion-seeking women, but that if he had not understood it, she would have made him.
The existence of a secret, rebellious inner life for Laura Bush has long been speculated upon—often by liberal women, who held out an otherwise unaccountable sympathy for her. You do not, for the record, glimpse much of this secret life in Spoken from the Heart; it reads as a calculated exercise in repairing George W. Bush's reputation, and indulges freely in the manipulative rhetoric that characterized his term. ("What, for instance, would the world have said if, in 1999, the United States had invaded Afghanistan? But had we done so, might the World Trade Center be standing today?" Sure! Let's invade every country! Then nothing bad will ever happen!) But Bush's inner subversiveness was predicted, with eerie accuracy, by Curtis Sittenfeld's novel, American Wife.
American Wife is a great book for several reasons, but most crucially, it allows liberal readers to like Laura Bush without guilt. In an endlessly endearing first person, it describes the life and poor decisions of Alice Blackwell, whose life story happens to be shared, in large part, by Laura Bush. But Sittenfeld took, as novelists can, certain liberties. She gave Blackwell drive, compassion, political insight; she gave her a fun lesbian grandma and a secret abortion and a tragic love story; she ended, presciently, with Blackwell taking a public stand against her husband's policies. But when Sittenfeld's heroine considered making a pro-choice statement, it was under duress. When she agreed with her husband's critics, it was in a private meeting; her statements reached the press second-hand. Even Sittenfeld didn't predict that Laura Bush would contradict her husband on live TV.
Before we fall in love, however, we should note the timing of Bush's King interview—and the issues. She supports gay marriage; her husband advocated a constitutional amendment banning it. She supports the right to legal abortion; her husband cut off funding to international women's health clinics that provided it, and appeared to be seriously set on overturning Roe v. Wade. These are human rights issues. And for eight years, she stood more or less silently and idly by. "I prefer to stand against oppression, to stand, with George, for freedom," she writes in Spoken From the Heart. To stand against the oppression of whom, precisely?
There are some subversive rumblings in Spoken from the Heart: Sympathy with the civil rights movement, a request that her husband refrain from making anti-gay policy central to his campaign, even feminism. ("One of my library colleagues invited me to join her women's consciousness-raising group, and I did. We talked about sisterhood, and read still more books, including Sisterhood is Powerful, and works by Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer.") But these statements are brief, tentative, couched in unlimited support for the Bush administration. Sisterhood can be powerful, but only when you stand up for your sisters. And of the many points feminism has made, over the years, one of the more important is that it is inadvisable, and often disastrous, to conceal your own values for the sake of a husband.
That type of self-denial is one of a First Lady's job requirements, however, and Laura Bush fulfilled it admirably. It's why so many people loved her, and why a book like American Wife could be written: Laura Bush cultivated, for years, a tantalizingly blank public face, upon which anyone could project anything. Bush writes of her irritation with being called a "traditional woman." But abnegating her own beliefs in order to stand by her man—even as he did things that affected innumerable lives, things she apparently knew to be wrong—was exactly "traditional," and the worst kind of tradition. The really troubling thing is how much people liked it: How a woman publicly enacting lack of engagement, lack of opinion, lack of self, was met with such sky-high approval ratings and such wide applause.
In fact, Laura Bush was never a passive spectator; she had influence with the public, and she used it. She even gave a Presidential radio address in lieu of her husband, and writes, of the reaction, "I realized the degree to which I had a unique forum as first lady. People would pay attention to what I said." Which brings the ways in which she used - or failed to use - that forum into stark relief. And she writes this: "There was, from the start, an underlying assumption on the part of the press that I would be someone else when I assumed the role of the first lady, that I would not, under any circumstance, simply be myself." Apparently, they were right.