May 5, 2010 -- 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."
Criticizing the critics
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.
No one doubted the intelligence findings (later proven untrue) that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, she writes, so why would he? And he flew over the devastation in New Orleans days after Katrina rather than stopping there because he was concerned about distracting rescue and relief efforts with the security and logistical demands of a presidential visit.
Instead, she faults his critics. She singles out Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for calling her husband a "liar" and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for questioning his judgment, knowledge and experience. "He has none," Pelosi once said of Bush.
"I think it's really important for public officials to use some sort of decorum, for all of them to," Laura Bush says. "George did. He would have never called anyone names like that, ever — certainly not the Leader and the Speaker. I mean, that's just not constructive. And we see it today. It's still happening today. It wasn't just about George. Now it's about the other side."
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, defends the comments the senator made when Bush signed off on designating a Nevada site for nuclear waste storage after leaving the impression during the 2000 campaign he wasn't likely to do so. "The fact is former president Bush didn't tell the truth to the people of Nevada about Yucca Mountain, and Sen. Reid didn't take it lightly," Manley says.
Then there's the news media. Bush describes a New York Times reporter as arrogant and adversarial, says a Washington Post reporter created a diplomatic incident during her trip to the Middle East and accuses a USA TODAY reporter of asking a "trick question" that prompted Teresa Heinz Kerry to say during the 2004 campaign that Laura Bush had never "had a real job."
Taking reporters to task in the book "was a lot of fun," she says in the interview, laughing, then adds: "Only kidding. I know the press gets the last word."
More sobering is the picture Laura Bush paints of how life inside the White House was transformed with the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.
She had never realized what a comforting backdrop the bustle of the public tours downstairs had been. "For a few months, there were no tours at all, and the White House is very silent without tours," she says. Before, she could "glance out the front window on the north side (to) see the tours going out and people walking down the street." Now, that was gone, too.
Security was tightened, and a hyper-vigilance took over. When she, her husband and others in the U.S. delegation fell ill at the G8 summit in Germany in 2007, they suspected poisoning, though it is now thought to have been caused by a virus.
At the White House, when a plane violated the closed airspace or a trespasser jumped over the fence, Secret Service agents would hustle her down three flights of stairs to the White House bunker.
'A comfort in each other'
Laura Welch and George W. Bush had grown up 10 blocks apart in Midland but weren't formally introduced until mutual friends invited them to a backyard barbecue on a hot July day in 1977. Three months later, they were married.
"That does seem a little reckless," she acknowledges, "but we had grown up absolutely side-by-side without having really crossed paths, except in the seventh grade at San Jacinto (Junior High), when neither of us would have spoken to someone of the other sex, probably."
Their attraction was "kind of chemical," she says. "We almost immediately found a sort of a comfort in each other that we have to this day — which is not so much sitting in the same room talking but just being together." She dismisses as ridiculous the portrait by critics of her husband as feckless or not intellectual.
After 9/11 and during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that sense of comfort sustained them both, she says.
As they prepared to move out of the White House, she worried about whether it would be hard to adjust to life back in Dallas. "I wondered what it would be like, especially for George, who had every problem in the world on his desk one day and the next day his desk was totally clean."
Once there, though, the transition was easy — a relief, really.
"I didn't really know how anxious I always was when I was there until I wasn't any more, until we got home," she says. "Those first few nights at home I would lie in bed and think, 'Now, what do I have to do tomorrow?' And it was a great relief to think I really didn't have to do anything the next day. ...
"I could at last exhale."