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Jesse Kornbluth

Jesse Kornbluth

Posted: May 12, 2010 06:07 PM

All men marry up.

I say that often, and the fact that I generally say it within hearing range of smart, attractive women doesn't make it less true. But I rarely leave it at a facile witticism. When I spot an A-list woman on the arm of a deadass bore, the petty bitch in me wonders: How does she do it --- year after year, listening to him, taking care of him, taking her clothes off for him?

For me --- and I'm sure I'm not alone in this --- George and Laura Bush are the Gold Standard of that kind of marriage. Set aside the debacle of George Bush's eight years as President. Consider only what we know of Bush as a guy: his bullying sense of superiority, his astonishment at unintended consequences, his proud rejection of intellect and his blind faith in a God who never fails to smile on him. And then consider what we know of Laura Bush as a woman: a passionate reader and champion of literacy, thoughtful mother, attentive listener.

How could quiet Laura Welch have decided to marry rowdy George Bush after a courtship of just six or seven weeks? What did the bookworm and the alcoholic have to talk about? How did they find a link strong enough for 33 anniversaries?

Spoken from the Heart --- for those who can't wait, there's a Kindle edition --- offers some answers to the questions that plagued me every time I saw the Bushes make an entrance, hand in hand.

This line on this book is that it's really two, and because White House memoirs never reveal much, only the first part --- the 160 pages that cover Laura Bush's Texas childhood, career as a teacher and librarian, wife and mother --- is newsworthy. Yes, if your idea of news is that, almost half a century later, Laura Bush gives a full account of the car crash that killed a high school friend. Of course she felt terrible. Couldn't face the boy's parents. Couldn't go to the funeral.

Laura Bush has read Willa Cather and Sherwood Anderson and Eudora Welty --- you can hear the spring breeze in these pages, feel the summer heat, see the screen door slam. But though she's a pleasure to read, the pre-White House decades are skimpy on real revelation. On their first date, George took her to play miniature golf; he was fun, he made her laugh. Okay, but Laura was an only child whose mother had lost three babies through infant death or miscarriage, and George, the black sheep of his family, had a mother who is the poster girl for "distant." You don't need to be Justin Frank, author of "Bush on the Couch," to think that Laura and George had interlocking primal wounds --- or to suspect that this couple had no way to access and share their pain.

It's the White House years that hold, for me, a trail of clues to the puzzle that is Laura Bush. Others have glazed over here, and they are not only right to do so, the book is designed to provide frequent naps. First Ladies go on trips, redecorate the White House, entertain the wives of foreign dignitaries, plan the Easter Egg Roll --- and then, to show they're capable of better, they get to champion a national priority. Laura Bush covers all the usual chores in mind-numbing detail, then gets excited about her extremely noble cause. Not, however, in a way that might excite a reader: "An afternoon with authors was as glamorous as a high-heeled, long-gowned ball." Zzzzz.

Laura Bush repeatedly tells us how much she loves her strong, steady husband, and she leaps to his defense early and often. Why did Bush choose a Vice-President who would make him seem like an intern? Of the never temperate Cheney, she writes, "George liked Dick's thoughtful, measured demeanor." Bush's reaction to Abu Ghraib: "I have to know how this was ever allowed to happen and to make sure it never happens again." Bush was universally flamed for ignoring Katrina, then "visiting" the flooded New Orleans with a brief flyover in Air Force One. He had, as always, a good reason: "With people still trapped in their flooded homes and thousands not yet evacuated from the superdome, George did not want a single police officer or national guard unit to be diverted from the rescue efforts to assist with a presidential visit."

Then there are the factual errors. Why did we go to war in Iraq in 2003? It wasn't just those elusive weapons of mass destruction and the Administration's determination to bring "freedom" to every country in the world with oil reserves. "By 2003, three out of four women in Iraq could not read," she writes. "Over 60 percent of all Iraqi adults were illiterate."

Mrs. Bush has it exactly wrong. Unless the Husseins had their eyes on very specific Iraqi beauties as sex partners, the women of Iraq were vastly better off under the dictator than they are under the liberation. As the millennium dawned, 74.1% of the total population of Iraq was literate. Female literacy was at 62.2%. Source? The CIA World Factbook. (And woe to Iraqi women who believed what Laura Bush does. From an Amnesty International 2007 report: "Politically active women, those who did not follow a strict dress code, and women [who are] human rights defenders were increasingly at risk of abuses, including by armed groups and religious extremists.")

There's a lot of patriotic blather painted over inconvenient facts in these pages, and at the start of a brief anecdote, I came to understand why such a devoted reader --- by definition, a person blessed with curiosity --- could so comfortably wear blinders about her husband and his associates. On 9/11, one of the first to die was the New York City Fire Department chaplain, Father Mychal Judge. She writes: "I was told...he was killed by the body of someone who had, in desperation, hurled himself from the upper floors of one of those towers."

A four-second Google exercise --- or a quick look at the famous photograph of firemen carrying Father Judge's body --- would have given her a far more banal explanation. Laura Bush did neither. "I was told." That's her "tell," I think. Three little words that, for me, start to unlock the puzzle of Laura Bush.

It's the oldest marriage story of all: A man goes out of his way not to marry his mother, then turns his wife into her. That's what I suspect happened to good-hearted, 31-year-old, borderline spinster --- in Texas terms, anyway --- Laura Welch. She married a guy who was a bundle of issues that he had no way to address, and, with the best of intentions, he turned her into the kinder, gentler mother he never had. He had no idea he was doing it. Neither did she.

Which makes the marriage of George and Laura Bush an anthology of stories. Her husband --- a one-time cheerleader, now a motivational speaker --- told them, and he may have believed them; the first person a salesman sells is usually himself. And because to doubt him and discover a more credible alternative to his stories might lead her to see him as a small, pathetic boy in a job he couldn't possibly do well, she affirmed him.

Laura Bush, the First Enabler --- what a sad, sad book this is.

[Cross-posted from Just Books, the literary blog of The Brennan Center for Justice]