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.