Now that she's out of the White House, Laura Bush would like to set some things straight. For one, the perception of her as the most conventional sort of first lady — a placid Stepford Wife with perfectly-in-place hair and little to say — was never true, she says in the first newspaper interview about her new memoirs. Reporters and others stereotyped her as "a conservative woman married to a conservative president," period.
That's not how she saw herself. She spoke in her own voice and sometimes broke new ground, she says, raising the cause of breast cancer awareness in conservative Saudi Arabia and pressing the administration to do more for women in Afghanistan.
"All our former first ladies are much more complicated and complex and interesting and different than we let them be, because we put them in a certain category every time," she says. "Barbara Bush, for instance, is a very strong-willed, outspoken woman, but she was always seen as just a grandmotherly type. It was very unfair to her, too."
This is Laura Bush, unplugged.
She is still conservatively dressed, quietly composed and deliberate in her choice of words. But during an hour-long interview Tuesday and in her new book, she comes across with a keener eye, a sharper tongue and a readier laugh than in interviews during the eight years while her husband was president.
In Spoken From the Heart (Scribner, 456 pages, $30), Laura Bush, 63, discusses George W. Bush's drinking before he turned 40, the distressing silence of the White House in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the car accident she caused at age 17 that killed a close friend and has haunted her since.
"It's tough; it's tough; it's still hard" to talk about the crash that took place on a dark country road on Nov. 6, 1963, Laura Bush says. "This was a major tragedy in my life and shaped me, I think, in ways that I didn't know then, that I didn't see then, that I see now in retrospect."
She was driving to the movies with a friend when she didn't notice a stop sign until too late. Her father's Chevy Impala smashed into the smaller Corvair Monza that Mike Douglas was driving, on his way to pick up his girlfriend. At the hospital, getting stitches in the emergency room, she could hear the choked sobs of his parents down the hall.
She never saw them again, never told them she was sorry — something she now regrets.
"It taught me something that's a very hard lesson to learn ... that things happen to you that you can't change; tragedies happen that you can't change," she says. "You'd do anything in the world to be back three minutes before it happened and to have it stop. You just can't. And I learned that 'if-onlys' are futile."
As an adult, when parents or teachers ask her to write to young people who have been involved in deadly car accidents, she urges the teens to get counseling to deal with the aftermath.
"But I didn't do that, and no one ever suggested I should," she says. "Somehow 1963 Midland, in West Texas — what people really did was sort of swallow their troubles, and you didn't really talk about it a lot. So that's what I did."
There are things Laura Bush doesn't deal with at greater length or with more candor. She doesn't want to dissect the Obama administration that succeeded her husband's. She has little time for critics who fault former president Bush's decision to invade Iraq or his response to Hurricane Katrina.