Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush, by Ann Gerhart

This was one of my recent purchases from the Friends of the Library booksale, held at--where else?--my local bibliotheque. For only a dollar, this little tome made its way to my home. I purchased it because Curtis Sittenfeld had used it as a reference when she wrote her fictionalized--may I add, lightly fictionalized--account of Laura Bush's life in her latest work, American Wife, a work that I just finished reading.

I purchased it in order to closely examine what was truth and what was fiction. After finishing The Perfect Wife, you can easily tell what is fiction in American Wife: Alice Blackwell's friends, her grandmother's role in her life, and the love scenes between her and her husband Charlie. The real Laura Bush is too discreet to even mention the word "sex" publicly.

After I finished The Perfect Wife, I was not just left with a clearer account of the differences between truth and fiction in the Sittenfeld novel, but I was left with a puzzling, complex profile of the now-former first lady, a woman who was just as fiercely protective of her husband's image as she was of her own privacy.

Ann Gerhart, the author, was a Washington Post reporter assigned to cover Mrs. Bush. At the time of the book's publication, in 2004, Gerhart had written nineteen articles about her for the Post. She had attended "numerous White House events she hosted and organized." (p. 191).

Gerhart had approached Mrs. Bush's press secretary in 2002 with the idea of writing a biography about the then-first lady. She wanted to write the book with full cooperation from Laura Bush, and asked her to "direct me to the peopel she felt knew her best and had observed her during different periods of her life." (p. 191) Mrs. Bush wanted a letter from Gerhart detailing the book and its purpose, and Gerhart responded to her request. Mrs. Bush, however, did not respond to the letter. Karen Hughes, then a presidential adviser, then informed Gerhart that Mrs. Bush would not sit for interviews for the book.

In spite of this setback, Gerhart still assembles a complicated portrait of a first lady who, as public a persona as she was for eight years, remains an enigma in many ways. In addition to her own interviews with Laura Bush, Gerhart relied on many previously published books and newspaper and magazine articles, as well as many television interviews. She provides a full bibliography of her sources at the end.

Here's what I found out about Laura Bush: she is passionate about literacy, and organized book festivals both in Texas and in Washington, DC. She is only the fourth first lady to testify before Congress, speaking before the Senate Committee on Education. She is an advocate for women's and children's rights, and was active in the creation of the Afghan Children's Fund, shortly after 9/11. Gerhart writes that, in some accounts, Mrs. Bush may have been secretly running the education department, her advocacy was so passionate.Now here's where things get murky: Whenever she appears in public, Mrs. Bush chooses her words very, very carefully, as if she is very, very careful not to contradict her husband on any political matters. (Mrs. Bush's friends told Gerhart that she had more liberal tendencies than her husband, and was known to vote Democrat on several occasions). During her White House days, she read several newspapers a day, and would have Karen Hughes call the editors of said newspapers to be more careful in portraying her husband as a monster, particularly when it came to American-Arab relations.

A couple of quotes from the book seem to solidify Laura Bush's personality for me:

"She is the Play-Doh first lady: Mold her into whatever shape you want, then stamp her back down into a pile of putty for her next audience." (p. 125)
"On the topic she held most dear, education, the first lady with the graduate degree seemed to have made a full retreat to an earlier the end, she is an old-fashioned first lady. she moves in the directions she is asked to moved. Goes where she is told. Nobody urges her to do otherwise." (p. 185)

The most interesting part of the book is the chapter that detailed Mrs. Bush's parenting style. In this section, Gerhart is the most critical of the first lady, describing her as a mother who encouraged her daughters' very public adolecent rebellion, "defending her girls' right to behave like the wildest college girls out there, if that was what made them happy, or to walk around looking like grungy slobs. Her declaration was the dead opposite of what most parents of teenagers say, which is, of course, 'I don't care what other kids do. You are not other kids.' " (p. 136) Gerhart then offers a side by side comparison of how Chelsea Clinton treated her Secret Service agents with respect and politesse, whereas Jenna and Barbara Bush tried to ditch their Secret Service agents on various occasions. Gerhart portrays the Bush girls as privileged, spoiled children who had many freedoms and weren't reined in until Grandma Bush intervened. (Gerhart, by the way, portrays Barbara Bush as a far cry from the grandmotherly image she cultivated during her years as the first lady).

My one regret about this book is that it ended in 2004, before George W. Bush ran for re-election. I would love to see Gerhart write an update to this book, one that chronicled the second term of the Bush administration.
Here is what's clear to me: Laura Bush is a woman who never wanted to be in the political spotlight, but made the best of being forced into the public eye. She was not an intense, outspoken first lady a la Hillary Rodham Clinton or Eleanor Roosevelt. She was not a style icon like Jacqueline Kennedy or Michelle Obama. (I don't think it's too early for me to say that, given that she's only been first lady for less than a week). She did not totally shun the limelight like Bess Truman or Pat Nixon. Rather, she cultivated a balance between her passions and her desire for privacy. She seemed to stay true to herself during her years in Washington. That seems like something that is very difficult to do.

That having been said, I still can't figure her out. I can't seem to form an opinion on her, one way or the other.

This is the latest entry in my 100+ Book Challenge. As always, click the button on the sidebar to get the full update of my latests reads, as well as check up on my past reading adventures!


Jenners said...


I was stopping by to check out your blog after you left such a lovely comment on mine. I really enjoyed reading this review ... I learned a lot from it and it gave me information I didn't know before. I think I might have to check this out actually...not something I would have thought to read but you kind of made me want to read it so good job!

Nice sharing of quotes too!

Kitten said...

Hey Jenners--Thanks for stopping by! I'm glad you liked the review. Let me know what you think of the book, too. :)

CDB said...

Ditto for me.. I happened to see this link on your right side bar and had to check it out. I would never have had any interest in reading a book (extoling the virtues of/) about a Bush, but I'm intrigued and now want to get it.

Just finished a book and I'm planning a review, soon.

Momma Hunt said...

I know that this is an old post of yours, but I saw in on your side bar when visiting from j.kaye's site. I read The American Wife, and liked it but didn't really know how much of it was actually fiction