In her eight years at the White House, former first lady Laura Bush had a Mona Lisa quality to her. That smile — was it one of peace, one of joy, or was it a mask? Perhaps all three. In her new memoir, Spoken from the Heart, Laura Bush writes about her life, from her early years — her childhood in Midland, Texas, and the night she was at the wheel when a car accident left a classmate dead — to her experiences in the White House during her husband's two terms.
Bush begins the book with an early memory that reflects part of "a pervasive loss for my family." When she was 2 years old, her mother, Jenna Welch, gave birth to a baby boy who did not survive long enough to leave the Western Clinic in the family's hometown, deep in west Texas. He was not the only baby lost to the Welch family.
"My mother had three other pregnancies," Bush tells NPR's Michele Norris, "and I have this very vague memory of looking at a nursery window in a hospital — or in Western Clinic in Midland. I don't remember looking at a baby. I just knew my little brother was there. And he did live for several days. Today, with the way medicine is, of course he would have lived; he was not that premature. But then, in 1948, he just lived for a few days."
Bush says that the absence of her siblings created a feeling of loss and disappointment that the whole Welch family shared.
"They wanted those children," she says. "And I was very aware of that, and I wanted them, too. I wanted those brothers and a sister. That was a very important part of my childhood and really of my whole life, because ... I ended up being an only child without those siblings."
Her childhood in Midland informed the rest of her life. During her husband's two terms in office, Washington, D.C., imported a Texas flair, but the nation got a sense of the state via the Bush family. In writing Spoken from the Heart, Laura Bush says she got a chance to share how the Midland of her childhood influenced their life together.
"I wanted people to get a sense for what it's like out there: the desert, the very, very plain landscape with the big sky." She says the land "inspired sort of a plainness of spirit. Any sort of pretensions look especially ridiculous when you're there in such a hard west Texas landscape. It was also a beautiful place to live. There was a huge sky, and watching the stars at night was one of the things my mother and I would do. We'd go lie on a blanket in the yard and look up at the stars, and there were just a lot of really wonderful experiences that we could have there, in sort of the isolated way that Midland was. It was a six-hour drive to Dallas, or on the other side a six-hour drive to El Paso. So it really was in the middle of nowhere."
That "hard west Texas" upbringing included more tragedy: At 17 years old, she was behind the wheel in a car accident that killed a classmate. In Spoken from the Heart, she writes:
The whole time, I was praying that the person in the other car was alive too. In my mind, I was calling, "Please, God. Please, God. Please, God," over and over and over again. Then more cars pulled up, and someone must have gone for help, because eventually we heard the wail of sirens and glimpsed the rotating, flashing lights of ambulances and police cars.
One driver who arrived was a man I recognized, Bill Douglas, the father of my very good high school friend Mike ... Judy and I were waiting to get in one of the ambulances, and Judy kept saying to me, "I think that's the father of the person who was in the other car." And I said, "No, that couldn't be the father. That's Mr. Douglas."
Laura Bush says that the typical Texan response to tragedy taught her lessons she carried with her to Washington, D.C.
"There is certainly a sense ... of swallowing your troubles, of not really talking about them, just going ahead," Bush says. "That sort of stiff upper lip style that a lot of people in the West have, and the temperament that is calm ... . I was able to not be so stressed or so thrown by tragic happenings like Sept. 11."
On that day early in her husband's first term, she was on her way to the Capitol to meet Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, to brief the Senate Education Committee on the results of an early childhood development conference she had held earlier in the year. As she got in the car to ride to the Capitol, the head of her Secret Service detail told her about the plane striking the first tower.
"By the time we got to the Capitol, we knew about the second plane, so we knew when we got there that it was a terrorist attack. And I went into Sen. Kennedy's office, and he gave me a tour of his office and pointed out mementos that were on his wall, including a letter that he still found very amusing from his brother Jack to his mother, where Jack says that Teddy is getting fat — he wrote it when Teddy was just a boy.
"He kept up this steady stream of small talk," Bush says. Over Sen. Kennedy's shoulder, she watched on a small television as the news came in from New York, but she also watched Sen. Kennedy. "I don't know, and I've speculated many times if this was his own way to handle tragedy because he'd had so many shocks in his own life, or if he was afraid I'd fall apart and this was a way to keep me distracted and to keep the conversation going. I'll never know."
That day, America saw how the terrorist attacks changed President Bush, but she saw how it changed the man.
"It changed both of us. It changed his whole presidency in one instant. We had both expected, when we moved to Washington, to be just working on education and tax cuts and all the things that George had campaigned on. That changed, and you know, instead it became really almost eight years of foreign policy," Bush says. "But also in the responsibility that George felt and that I felt, too: to make sure we didn't have another terrorist attack — to do everything we could. And then, once we went into Afghanistan and then later into Iraq, the constant worry about our troops."
That particular worry persisted through the rest of her time in the White House and continues today, but she says she's not worried that history will be hard on her husband's presidency.
"Not at all. I think that George did really what he should have done under the circumstances that we lived in with the terrorist attack," Bush says. "He kept our country safe for the whole time he was there — the rest of the time he was there. He liberated two countries. Iraq, we just are watching, have had recent elections. It looks like they are going to be able to stand up a democracy. I think Afghanistan can, too. And I'm happy about that."
It has been observed that after a family moves out of the White House, the period of adjustment to a new life can feel like the air going out of a balloon. Not for her, Bush says.
"It's actually been very good for us. I worried about George. I was not so much worried about myself, because I had really started to anticipate the next part of our life. I had gone to Dallas and started looking for a house to buy. But I knew for George — the president of the United States has every problem in the world on his desk," she says. "And I knew that George would go from every problem on his desk to nothing, to a totally clean desk. And I wondered how he would handle that. But he's handled it very well, and he made a very conscious decision not to second-guess the new president."