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Laura Bush - The Reluctant But Radiant Celebrity

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This past Saturday in Washington you could practically hear the hum of blow-dryers all afternoon and soon after spot tuxedoed and be-gowned clusters and couples along Connecticut Avenue trying to hail a cab to the White House Correspondents Dinner to get to the biggest See and Be Seen event of the year here.

I couldn't help think about a woman who was center stage at this event for 8 years, who absolutely killed with her own stand-up in 2005 when she called the President "Mr. Excitement" and declared herself a 'Desperate Housewife" and who I imagine was thrilled not to be there.

Laura Bush, whose memoir Spoken from the Heart comes out today, was one of the most well-liked First Ladies in history as well as the least well-known. And according to most of the reviews of her book, we're not going to get to know her a whole lot better.

Ann Gerhart, a Washington Post reporter who covered Laura Bush and wrote the biography The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush says today that Laura Bush never really became accustomed to her fame, never sought it yet always handled it with authenticity.

"I remember her press secretary Noelia Rodriquez noting that for a long time whenever Laura Bush walked into a room and people began to applaud she would reflexively look over her shoulder to see who was behind her," says Gerhart, "She just couldn't get used to the fact they were clapping for her."

Gerhart notes something else unusual. "Unlike everyone else in this city, she never would take credit for the things she did, and even in her own book, she is still doing that."

She adds that she was particularly struck by Laura Bush's description of her early years in Texas and the tragic car accident that marked her for life. "She talks so fully and reflectively about her upbringing, it's so revealing and powerful and evocative but as soon as George Bush walks onto the stage the book quickly becomes a public biography of programs and policy."

Gerhart covered the First Lady and interviewed her many times and notes, "This book is true to her character, she's not going to reveal things that are private...I never found her difficult to interview but she was always very deliberative and cautious...if you asked her about herself she would speak in these simple kind of 'Dick and Jane' sentences like "I thought George was fun and funny" but then you'd hear her at one of her library symposia and these complex sentences tumbled from her mouth. She's keenly intelligent when she talks about things other than herself."

This is not to say Laura Bush couldn't handle the spotlight. "She never shied from it - she was warm, sincere and duty-bound but never gave of herself to it...she left the White House with us knowing just as much about her as when she came in."

She doesn't think fame changed the First Lady either. "She had the advantage of being exposed to life in the White House when her in-laws were there and had that rare experience of having stayed overnight, knew the staff and had an awareness of how that all would be. She was interested in entertainment, decorating and food and just making people feel comfortable." Then came September 11. "I watched her and I knew it changed her."

She adds, "She did not have a shyness per se, more a disinterest in being the center of the room. Laura Bush has the remarkable capacity to be perfectly self-composed with a crowd around her. I think she struggled a bit with all the attention but appreciates people who like it, like her husband."

This new book will help us remember a woman who preferred smoking and reading to Bush family sports, who handled a world-class tough mother-in-law and let her girls wear flip-flops on visits to foreign dignitaries.

Gerhart recalls both a radiance and fearlessness to this First Lady as well as true star quality.

"Although in many ways because of her personal quietude I wouldn't call her a real celebrity the way Michelle Obama is - she's so dynamic and historic - I think Laura was permitted to be a little more herself, certainly more than Hillary Clinton ever was."

But she adds, "I think these women are not as dissimilar as people think in the way they have carried out this weird and bizarre volunteer gig called being a First Lady."

At the end of Spoken from the Heart Laura Bush provides her own eloquent coda to an uneasy but graceful truce with her fame.

"I am aware, though, that a completely normal life remains just out of reach. At the airport with my mother, well-wishers ask for pictures and I stop to smile underneath the dangling Hertz car rental sign. In restaurants, in passenger terminals, amid the shelves of a bookstore, strangers approach me like long-lost friends, or rotate their heads to offer up smiles, second glances or polite stares. At times I wonder when this curiosity will fade, when the novelty of our lives will diminish, and George and I will occupy more of the background."

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