Friday, June 24, 2016

Book Review: Spoken from the Heart

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Spoken from the Heart

Author: Laura (Welch) Bush

Date: 2010

Publisher: Scribner / Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 978-1-4391-5520-2

Length: 441 pages plus 23-page index

Quote: “It is easy to criticize a sitting president when you are not the one…responsible for the decisions that must be made and for the whole of the nation.”

George W. Bush is no longer a sitting president, nor is the purpose of this review to criticize him. It’s to criticize Spoken from the Heart. So let’s get the unfavorable “criticism” out of the way first: A certain self-contradiction is inherent in this book. How can you “speak from the heart” in a memoir about being private people in a public position?

Who, in fact, is speaking? This is Laura Welch Bush’s memoir…but it’s not a very personal memoir. It has the consistent tone of the stories a private person might share with a professional writer, in order to meet the demand for a memoir by that private person without embarrassing that person’s children. If you guessed the hack writer was the Washington Post treasure who writes under the unforgettable name of Lyric Wallwork Winik, you were absolutely right. Most of the stories in this memoir were reported in the Post, and although some of them are personal memories Mrs. Bush obviously shared with Winik, they’re told the way Winik tells them.

So, even more than Karen Hughes’ memoir…this is not the kind of gossipy memoir that might supply “dirt” on a politician that you didn’t already know. There’s surprisingly little about W Bush in it, and nothing more intimate than the disclosure, familiar by 2010, that W habitually fell asleep and woke up early. The tone is consistently warmhearted, cordial, correct, and politely distant….the way you expected Mrs. Bush would sound when sharing memories with a professional writer. The way you probably imagine she’d be, in real life, as a neighbor or co-worker.

She was born in Midland, Texas, in 1946, and grew up there. Her family were well off, not extremely wealthy by Texas oil country standards, but not blessed with the healthiest genes; her siblings died in infancy, her father died young. Her dog once bit a man for kicking another dog. She was born extremely nearsighted, not quite to the extent of being “legally blind” like her coeval Hillary Rodham Clinton—little Laura Welch could look outside and see trees, without glasses—but nearsighted enough that, after acquiring glasses in grade two and seeing leaves on trees, she never looked back. (Those bright eyes are technologically enhanced, as are Mrs. Clinton's, today.) She and W “passed in the hallways” in junior high school, even had mutual friends, but didn’t become acquainted until the summer of 1977, when “I assumed that George would be very interested in politics, while I was not”…but they were married that November. Their wedding anniversary was “one day before the anniversary of the awful accident” in which teen driver Laura Welch was injured and one of her friends, in the other car, was killed.

The rest is literally history. You might have read reporters’ views of Mrs. Bush’s memories in the newspapers. In this book they’re all in one place, in chronological order, and you do get Mrs. Bush’s personal comments and insights, the “I gave my first speech…but it…wasn’t nearly as bad as I had anticipated. In fact, it wasn’t much different from reading a story to my students” sort of thing, but the feeling is consistently that you’re reading her comments on the newspaper files rather than reading her personal diary.

Actually, after I've read some gossipy celebrity memoirs, this cordial but reserved manner comes as a relief. It’s a quality Laura Bush’s admirers (of whom I suppose I’m one) liked about her. We didn’t want to know the precise details of every family quarrel or case of flu, and there’d certainly been enough criticism of W Bush in the news media. We’re glad to read that she enjoyed some of the perks of being First Lady (“George and I also grew pots of tomatoes on the parapet” in the White House) enough to offset the craziness of tightened war-presidency “security measures” (“I could walk each morning along the corridors from the residence to my offices in the East Wing…it was possible to spend several days without ever venturing outside”). We share her relief when she and “homebody” W Bush leave the White House, having accomplished a difficult feat for nice, quiet, private people: both of them and their family life survived.

A First Lady has an important job—creating and maintaining a pleasant atmosphere, such that people who dislike and distrust each other, are far from their homes, and are probably jet-lagged and hung-over, are able to feel good about the time they spend doing Official Negotiation together—so in Mrs. Bush’s case a short, almost whimsical anecdote acquires importance:

“At 9:15, the sky was still ablaze as we boarded a boat to cruise with the Putins along the Neva River…as the sun slipped toward the western horizon on one side and the moon rose in the east. George…said…“you are in Heaven.’ The translator immediately repeated it to the Putins, who gasped with pleasure.”

They were not in Heaven. They were in Russia, where any pleasure that could possibly be shared with their hosts was a small step toward lasting peace. So that paragraph was not only worth printing (on page 261); it’s worth quoting, here, for whatever pleasure it may give any Russian readers who may know exactly what sort of natural beauty the Bushes and the Putins were enjoying.

One thing for which the Bushes were sometimes criticized, by the ignorant, was not having rushed to the scenes of the major crises of W’s administration. Recalling those incidents from Mrs. Bush’s point of view, we appreciate the tact with which the Bushes arranged to meet with private people in public places to spare them the burdens of hosting a presidential visit. 

One thing I’ve mentioned at this web site, in Former Washingtonian Mode, is the inconvenience of having the First Family visit places not designed to accommodate presidential-level security as it has grown to be these days. It’s not like the obligatory visits state and local officials, or even members of Congress, make to disaster areas, where they are free to chat with survivors and even help clean up the mess. We really have found it necessary to keep all First Families, during my lifetime, like prisoners in Washington—their guards have valid complaints if the President and family insist on being allowed to walk on the street or go into a store like ordinary people, as have the ordinary people on the street or in the store. Such “escapes” usually have to be scheduled for the dead of the night, to minimize the harm they do to local business. Even as a nineteen-year-old student at a rally in Lafayette Park, where someone pointed to the White House and shouted “Where are those people?”, I already knew that the President and Mrs. Reagan would never have been allowed to mingle with that crowd, even if anyone had had the gall to invite them to the rally, even if they had wanted to come out across the street and meet us. 

People don’t always understand that a presidential motorcade is about a mile long, that members of the First Family have to be completely surrounded by armed guards at all times, and that, although the guards are heroic and usually likeable men and women, their function is to take up a lot of space. In situations for which the First Family are not really trained to be useful, e.g. Barbara Bush’s famous visit to New Orleans where some of the hurricane survivors assured her that they were just-fine-thank-you-ma’am-now-please-get-out-of-the-way, a presidential visit is likely to be more inconvenient than inspiring. Mrs. Bush wants us to know that she did visit certain places, though, after the crises were past and her visits weren’t unbearable burdens to the communities. And she arranged to meet with private people in public places so that her entourage wouldn't overflow out of their homes.

When what some readers may dislike about a book is what others will like about it, one can say that the author has achieved a most correct and proper book, which I suppose is the way I’d summarize Spoken from the Heart. There are a lot of stories Laura Bush might have blurted out, but we neither expected nor wanted her to. It is possible, even for readers who are aware of some of those stories, to close this book thinking, “God bless America. God bless Mrs. Bush.”

Since she's still alive, and she does support legitimate charities, this is a Fair Trade Book. Buy it here, for $5 per copy + $5 per package (this is a big showy hardcover book, so I wouldn't expect more than two copies to fit into a package), and Mrs. Bush or a charity of her choice gets $1 per book. Payment may be sent to either address at the very bottom of the screen, down below that longish and growing blog feed widget.