Two new books meant to applaud Laura Bush’s pleasant personality actually highlight how she has wasted her unique opportunity to play an influential role. We expect more of women in public life now than we did when Bess Truman was first lady. And the war in Iraq has become so all-consuming with voters that the do-good projects designed to give her increased visibility in the second Bush term seem too little, too late.
One, called “Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady,” by Ronald Kessler, brags that it was written with White House cooperation, meaning in this most secretive of administrations the book can be ignored as the source of independent, fresh information.
The other, called “Laura’s List: the First Lady’s List of 57 Great Books for Families and Children,” by Beverly Darnall, is a puff piece designed to call attention to her devotion to reading and intellectual pursuits, both very good things. Unfortunately, it lists only nine books for adults — the rest is about children’s literature, an easier and less potentially controversial call.
[S]he favors abstinence over contraception in poor countries where women have little power to reject males, and shows no sympathetic understanding for their plight. Her stand on the stem cell debate, which her husband has muffed, is disingenuous: “We don’t even know that stem cell research will provide cures for anything,” she said.
If she has any thoughts of her own they are unknown — that is, except perhaps for a few cracks at Hillary. When Hillary remarked that the GOP-controlled House of Representatives was run like a plantation (a widely viewed bipartisan political opinion, although usually phrased more tactfully) Laura tartly dismissed the comment as “ridiculous.” But the first lady’s real problem now is that time is running out for creation of a legacy worth remembering. The Iraq debacle has outrun her.
The value of education is no competition for the immediacy of the bloody truths of war. She can’t break through the background noise on that. Her husband’s ratings are at 36 percent, dangerously low for a president. And her own high popularity is not enough to give her a serious public platform unless she drops the wifely number and goes for the political jugular.
But it’s all his war. Not hers. Did she egg him on? Did she try to restrain him? Who knows? Who cares? In February, a CNN-USA Today/Gallup Poll showed 82 percent of those surveyed approve of the job she is doing. But voters apparently approve because she isn’t doing much. They do not want her to step out in front and run for public office. At a recent speech, the president was asked if his wife would run for the Senate some day, as Hillary and Elizabeth Dole, wife of 1996 GOP nominee Bob Dole, successfully did. Bush said his wife was not interested in running for office. Good thing.
The Gallup poll says 53 percent of those surveyed did not want to see her run. She is undoubtedly right that one former first lady in our face at a time is enough. But what then does Laura Bush do with the remaining years of the administration? Read a good book or two, perhaps.