First lady finds a happy medium

Americans have always been ambivalent about their first ladies. If a president’s wife has too much clout, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, she is resented as being power-hungry and insufficiently ladylike. If she is noncontroversial and shuns the limelight, like Mamie Eisenhower and Pat Nixon, she is dismissed as inconsequential.

So far, Laura Bush has been able to find a happy medium. She has an impact on her husband’s worldview, yet the public sees her as amiable and non-threatening.
Because of her relatively low profile, however, the public knows little about her. Washington Post reporter Ann Gerhart has attempted to fill that knowledge gap with a timely and well-written book, The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush.

Gerhart, who covers the first lady for the newspaper’s Style section, chronicles her subject’s life from an idyllic middle-class childhood in Midland, Texas, to her efforts to encourage the nation to read and appreciate good books.

And although Bush may lack Clinton’s political ambition or her love of policy details, the current first lady has made her mark in selected areas important to her.

“What’s so intriguing about Laura Bush is how she can be utterly familiar, and, at the very same time, compellingly mysterious. Intensely bright, quietly curious, she appears wholly traditional at every milepost of her life,’’ Gerhart writes in the introduction. “And yet. There lurks this independence that seems almost subversive. Her passions are quite different from the president’s; she indulges them separately, usually without any public display.’’

The book is fair, and the author presents neither a hatchet job nor a hagiography. One comes away liking the subject and thinking she would be a charming dinner companion with whom one could have a lively discussion on baseball or the relevance of The Brothers Karamazov to 21st century society.

Ironically, given her husband’s chosen line of work, one subject that she seems less interested in talking about is politics. Though she reads a great deal of polling data and has had a firsthand view of life in the White House as the wife and daughter-in-law of presidents, one comes away from the book thinking that she might have been equally happy if she had remained a teacher or librarian.

Fortunately, Bush has had the opportunity that most educators lack: to transform her interests into national policy. Gerhart discusses at length the first lady’s role in successfully lobbying for an 11 percent increase in the Education Department budget during the first year of her husband’s presidency. This includes a substantial increase in funding for early childhood reading programs, a subject especially dear to Bush’s heart.

Gerhart is frustrated that the first lady insists on staying in the background:

“She refuses to take any credit for what she might have accomplished by expending her personal capital as first lady. This is as startling as it is refreshing in Washington, a city where people fall over each other to take credit for things they did not do. But it also diminishes her effectiveness. Quiet isn’t sexy in a quick-cut, sound bite, 24-hour news cycle political culture.”

That’s an unfair indictment. There is much to be said for quiet advocacy that shuns
the headlines. Bush, who has voted for several Democratic presidential and statewide candidates, has not converted her husband to her own liberal views on social policy. However, his advocacy of “compassionate conservatism’’ is in part a result of her efforts to polish some of the rough edges that one often hears from Republican politicians.

Gerhart at once praises Bush for carving her own niche in the world and criticizes her for not being vocal enough in expressing her liberal views.

The author’s own political leanings are also in evidence when describing the segregated society of Midland in which the first lady grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. She chastises the first lady and her peers for accepting the status quo and not doing enough to improve racial relations.

To be sure, Bush did not behave much differently than did many whites of her generation. She has made up for that by taking a special interest in the well-being of minority children — both while a teacher and librarian and as first lady of Texas and the United States.

Though one may disagree with Gerhart’s assessments, they do not diminish the book’s overall value. It is well-reported and benefits from the author’s extensive interviews with the first lady’s family and friends and visits to the cities in Texas where the Bushes have lived. The first lady declined to cooperate on the project, but Gerhart makes judicious use of previous interviews she conducted with her subject for the Post.

As a result, The Perfect Wife is an engaging and useful book that helps readers better understand Laura Bush.

Marx is a journalist who has written extensively about American politics and history.

Book reviewed:
The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush

By Ann Gerhart
197 pages; $24
Simon & Schuster, 2004