432 pages | Buy This Book
This is former first lady Laura Bush’s tell-all. With impressive honesty, she recounts her days growing up West Texas and her path to the White House. Along the way, she casts a critical eye on political mudslinging and reveals her deep antipathy to the dirty games of politics, taking jabs at prominent reporters like Katie Couric and elected officials like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. But the most moving passages of the book focus on the women’s rights issues she tackled in the White House and the people around the world she helped as first lady.
What’s the Big Deal?
Endless ink has already been spilled about the controversial decisions of George W. Bush, but Laura Bush’s memoir paints a very different portrait of the former president—the family man who played “el tigre” with his daughters and cried at his wedding. But in the end, she stands by her man, offering staunch support for many of Bush’s most controversial policies and decisions, such as the invasion of Iraq and his handling of the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina. The value in her story, though, is her candor. She doesn’t sugarcoat her opinions, laying out an agenda of women’s education in Afghanistan, HIV/AIDS relief in Africa, and international literacy efforts, all of which she still considers top priorities for the nation and world.
Buzz Rating: Roar
The New York Times snagged an early copy of the book and leaked the juiciest details, revelations about Mrs. Bush’s 1963 car crash, an alleged presidential poisoning overseas, and Laura’s own affectionate nickname for Dubya (“Bushie”). The former first lady is a book-publicist’s dream, taking top billing on the biggest outlets: she’s appeared on Oprah and the Today show.
One-Breath Author Bio
Eight years in the White House sums up Laura Bush’s time in the public eye, but long before she was first lady, she was a grade-school teacher and a librarian, before settling down as a housewife and the first lady of Texas.
Don’t Miss These Bits
1. Despite claims to the contrary, she says she’s a strong advocate of women’s rights. On the heels of first lady Hillary Clinton, pundits questioned Laura Bush’s passion for the issue. In fact, she says, she carried the banner throughout her career. “When Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, in 1963, their lives, my life, and those of my friends were not upended,” she writes. “What I see now in retrospect is that so many of my friends broke barriers not by intention but simply by doing” (page 77). In 1969, she interviewed for a position on Capitol Hill, and her interviewer had one essential question: can you type? But Bush writes that she refused to waste her time in school studying to become someone’s secretary (page 85). Instead, she returned to teaching, which she considers her real passion.
2. It was a long road to Barbara and Jenna. After getting married when they were both 31, Laura and George dealt with fertility fears. All they wanted was a child, which she writes about movingly: “The English language lacks the words to mourn an absence. For the loss of a parent, grandparent, spouse, child, or friend, we have all manner of words and phrases, some helpful, some not. Still we are conditioned to say something, even if it is only ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ But for an absence, for someone who was never there at all, we are wordless to capture that particular emptiness” (page 104). The book begins by recalling her mother’s tragic miscarriages and mourning the siblings Laura never had. The newlywed Bushes ultimately decided to adopt, only to find out at the same time that Laura was pregnant with twins.
3. On 9/11, the first lady was at the Capitol with Sens. Ted Kennedy and Judd Gregg for a hearing about education; she was rushed through a maze of underground hallways and was held hidden from the world for hours. Updates came via Secret Service agents, but she didn’t know about the attack on the Pentagon until Lynne Cheney told her that night. In remembering, she considers the what-ifs: “In the intervening years, Judd and I, and many others, were left to contemplate what if Flight 93 had not been forced down by its passengers into an empty field; what if, shortly after 10:00 A.M., it had reached the Capitol Dome?” (page 201).
4. Looking back on a planned 2003 White House event honoring great authors that became controversial when some attendees refused to come out of opposition to the administration’s policies, the First Lady remembers thinking that some of the high-minded participants underestimated her intelligence, and she contends “everyone can appreciate and enjoy literature; books do not come with a ‘do not read’ sign for Democrats, independents, or Republicans” (page 281). Scholar Patricia Limerick later admitted to doing Mrs. Bush “a terrible disservice” by thinking she was ignorant of literature. The event was postponed and never rescheduled. Bush recalls regretting that the works of the honored writers never made it into American’s homes because of someone’s political agenda.
Swipe This Critique
About a half of Spoken From the Heart could have (and should have) been cut. Bush beautifully recounts several intensely personal stories, like the 1963 car crash (which killed a close friend) and her fertility struggles. But those gems are sandwiched between pages and pages of boring, uninteresting facts, like what color she decided to paint the White House residency’s walls and what theme she chose every year for the Christmas celebration. The same goes for the tiresome rundown of personal and political affections, which read like a list of thank-yous following up on her daily meeting logs.
Upon returning from World War II, her father vowed to never own a gun again. He never did.
Seemingly every page contains another name of some family or political connection, which are hardly essential to the main narrative.
Prose: The book reads like a conversation. There are flashes of flowing, poetic prose, but mostly the tone is casual and simple.
Construction: The timeline jumps around—on a single page, we’re on the campaign trail in 2000 and then suddenly thrown back to 1988, making it hard to keep up with who is who and where we’re heading.
Miscellaneous: Laura Bush graduated from college at 21 and was married at 31. But that decade only gets 10 pages. For someone so outspoken about how she wasn’t just a housewife, Bush really brushes through an important period of her life.