Today, the title “First Lady” comes so freighted with elaboration and expectation that it’s easy to forget that it’s a position without any official or statutory existence. Our notions of how a first lady is supposed to behave or of what her obligations may be are entirely creatures of custom and social convention that have emerged rather slowly over time.
The only constant that extends back to the founding is the expectation that a particular woman will be designated to act as the president’s hostess and organizer of the White House social affairs. The first presidential consort, Martha Washington, was apparently among the die-hard Federalists who wistfully hoped that the new republic would adopt English-style titles. She liked to be called “Lady Washington.”
The first reported use of the honorific “First Lady” was in the eulogy that then- President Zachary Taylor delivered in 1849 at the graveside of the redoubtable Dolley Madison, who had served as White House hostess not only for her husband, James, but also for his best friend, widower Thomas Jefferson, who admired her ability to evoke the intellectually charged French-style salons he’d so loved in Paris. Still, it really wasn’t until the 1930s — when newspaper and magazine coverage of White House events became a press staple — that “First Lady” became the universally accepted title of the chief executive’s official hostess.
Our notion of what a first lady ought to do with herself has refined itself over time, though it’s now generally agreed that she ought to have causes complementary to, but apart from, her husband’s politics. What all this suggests is that the real nature of the contemporary first lady’s role is defined by the nature of her marriage. Indeed, part of what makes former First Lady Laura Bush’s open, deeply felt and engrossing memoir “Spoken From the Heart” genuinely memorable is its portrait of her marriage to George W. Bush. Whatever one thinks of his presidency, anyone who reads this rather remarkable book will count him fortunate in his choice of wives.
One of Laura Bush’s best qualities as a memoirist — and she is a particularly fine, lyrical one — is her ability to speak the language of feelings without recourse to cant or contemporary psychobabble. Partly, that may reflect her deep — and deeply appreciated — roots in the hardscrabble West Texas oil country where she grew up. Partly, it probably reflects her deep reading and obvious appreciation of great literature, something that surfaces here again and again, though always unselfconsciously. She was, after all, the bookish only child of a doting father and bookish mother, and would go on to become a teacher of inner-city children and, later, a librarian trained at the University of Texas’ great school of that so painfully underappreciated vocation.
The former first lady has written two actual memoirs in this book. The first, more compelling of the two concerns her girlhood in Midland, Texas, and her life up until her husband decided to run for president, a decision she signed onto with some reluctance. (She clearly would have preferred an earlier retreat to the ranch she so loves in Crawford.) The first section is rich in elegantly recounted detail; the second has a somewhat flat and, often, detached tone — except in a few crucial instances. Even so, the account of her eight tumultuous years in the White House is singularly free of the mean-spiritedness and payback that has become a routine feature of contemporary political memoirs.
One theme that does unite both sections is the author’s acute but never morbid appreciation for the reality of loss in all our lives. As a high school girl, she was momentarily inattentive while driving on a dark local road and struck another car, whose driver — a longtime friend and classmate — was killed. The event would haunt her and make her reluctant to drive any distance for years to come. Later, as a mother who married relatively late in life, she bore her husband twin girls upon whom they obviously dote, but she regretted never being able to conceive more children, particularly the son she suspects her husband would like to have had, though he never complained.
As first lady, she sometimes would roam the White House, thinking of all the presidential children who had sickened and even died there. She was in the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s office when the terrorists flew the planes into the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, and, at first, thought the Massachusetts Democrat’s insistence on continuing their conversation while the horrific images streamed across the television screen was odd. Then she wondered whether he was carrying on to keep her from breaking into tears; then finally she concludes that this insistence on normalcy was the reflex of a man whose life had been so marked by loss and tragedy. (In his memoir, Kennedy recalled the occasion for the first lady’s grace and poise in the face of tragedy.)
Some of the most intriguing parts of this memoir involved Laura Bush’s views on race and her experience teaching in inner-city schools in Houston and Dallas. Her ability to describe her relationship with the pupils and with their disadvantaged, disordered familial circumstances is empathetic and free of condescension. So too her views on growing up in segregated Midland and her shame over attending a whites-only high school named after Robert E. Lee. As a Texan, she resented naming a school after an “outsider,” and she felt even then that the social arrangement of her beloved hometown was “wrong.” As an undergraduate at SMU, proud of its integrated football team, she recounts finally finding the “vocabulary” to express her objection, which was that Lee’s choice of his duty to Virginia over the moral imperative of abolition was unacceptable.
Perhaps the best parts of this beautifully written book involved the former first lady’s deeply rooted appreciation for the physical landscape of Texas in all its seasons, which she appears to love second only to her family.