Laura Bush on her memoir, Spoken From The Heart
HH: Congratulations on the publication of Spoken From The Heart, and thank you for joining us.
LB: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
HH: You know, authors often complain to me about the rigors of their book promotion tours. How does that compare with the ordinary week in the life of a first lady, your book tour?
LB: Well, I’ll tell you, a book tour is a lot like a campaign life when you’re running for office and going from town to town. Of course, we did across the United States in 2000 and 2004, but it’s been really fun. I’ve loved…I’m in Atlanta, calling from Atlanta today, and it’s great to be here. Yesterday, we were in Nashville, and the day before that, in Houston, and so that’s been really fun. Tomorrow is St. Louis, or rather, Kansas City, and the next day, St. Louis. So…
HH: As it compared to writing the book, you and the President are both working on books at the same time. Who was the more disciplined writer?
LB: Well, George is by far the most disciplined, I think. He immediately started, he types. He’s a really good typist, and so he started typing his book. I had talked mine into a tape recorder, and then had a transcriber transcribe it before I put it back together. So I think he’s a lot more disciplined.
HH: And did you go back and forth with your text pages, and have each other read them?
LB: We did. We read each other’s, we’ve read each other’s books, and he told me to take a few stories out of mine that he said were his stories, which they really were. They were things that happened to him, but that I wanted to use in my book. And so that’s been fun. It’s been really fun. And then our girls also read different parts of it, and my girls are so thrilled with mine for a reason that I didn’t really think of, and that is because I wrote about my parents and my grandparents, their great-grandparents who they never knew. So there’s sort of a purpose in a memoir that everyone ought to write down a few memories for your children.
HH: You know, you’ve ranged over a lot of area in Spoken From The Heart, and I appreciated especially the reflection on West Texas. On Page 121, you write that, “People in West Texas believe that they think differently, and to a large degree, they do. There’s a plainness to the way West Texas looks that translates into how people act, and what they value. Those who live there are direct and blunt to the point of hurt sometimes.” Is this an explanation for how you and the President act in the course of the eight years in the White House, in how you deal with people?
LB: Well, I think that it’s really an explanation of what it was like to grow up there, and the kind of values that people in West Texas get. And my childhood was there, and George’s childhood was there as well. He didn’t, the Bush’s moved to Houston when we were in the eighth grade, but before that, he lived in Midland, and then he moved back in 1975 after graduate school. And then I moved back to Midland in 1977 when we married. And we lived there when our girls were born, and for the first ten years of our marriage. And I did want people to know about West Texas. I wanted to be able to really evoke for people what living out there in a very sort of hard landscape is like, but also how self-reliant people are, and how generous they are to their neighbors, and really how dependent you are on the people that are around you, because of how tough the landscape is. We lived there, both of us, during the 50s, during the big dust bowl when it didn’t rain for a whole year that we were in Midland. And you know, is just gave us a sense of what life is really like. The people aren’t pretentious in West Texas, and pretention would seem a little silly out there in that landscape.
HH: It seemed it might have served you well. There are so many very moving stories of when you’re dealing with people who are in grievous situations. On Page 208, not long after 9/11, you and the President visit the Washington Hospital Center to see Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell and his wife. I think it may have been your first post-9/11 visit to a member of the military who had been wounded. And your husband returns his salute, that he takes a long time to return because of his injuries, very emotional. Did your West Texas upbringing help you deal with people like Lt. Col. Birdwell and his wife, and the other wounded and fallen that you met through the years as first lady?
LB: Well, it may have in many ways. I don’t know how we were prepared for that, because of course, it was nothing we expected. When George ran for president in 2000, he ran on education reform and tax cuts, and we both assumed, really, with the end of the Cold War, and the establishment of the new democracies in Eastern Europe, that our four years would be really focused on domestic policy. And then when, after September 11th, of course, we became focused on foreign policy, and really remained that way for much of the time, for the rest of the time, or the rest of our seven years in office. But I do think that both of us are really strong, and that may just be the way we were born. It may be from growing up in West Texas like that. But I think we both had the kind of emotional strength and spiritual strength that was necessary to be able to deal with the tragedies then, and the loss of life, the grieving that we all did in the United States after September 11th, just the grief alone of the idea of our country having an attack like that on the homeland.
HH: I was touched as well by the service at Camp David on the Sunday after 9/11 when the chaplain, Navy Lt. Bob Williams read Psalm 27, “I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” And you write, “I knew that goodness wore camouflage and khaki, it wore Army green, Navy white, Marine tan, and Air Force blue. Had you been prepared for this job of being, really, a service member’s spouse, commander-in-chief’s spouse? And you must identify with the spouses of everyone in the military in a way that I hadn’t really considered until I read Spoken From The Heart.
LB: Well, I did identify with them, of course, and that’s one of the real, just unbelievable privileges of serving in the office, and that’s getting to know the men and women of the military who in our country volunteer to risk their lives, and to serve our country. And George and I of course met with many, many families who lost someone in Iraq or Afghanistan, and that was always so difficult. And the amazing thing is how those families react, and how much courage those families have, and how inspiring they were to us. The wonderful thing about the meetings would be how they would want to tell us about the person they lost, and what they liked, or what they did, or how they were funny, or you know, the way they could keep the person they lost alive by sharing the story of what they were like. In fact, one sister actually wrote a story about her brother, and read it to us. And that was very, very moving, and also just such a privilege for us to get to meet people like that.
HH: In November of last year, Mrs. Bush, you and the President made a trip down to Fort Hood in the aftermath of the terrorist attack there. How difficult was that trip after you’ve left the White House, and it’s so close to your ranch?
LB: It’s so close to our ranch, and that’s why we just went straight on there. We were going to the ranch, and we just kept driving on to Fort Hood just to visit those families. And once again, and it was just really amazing, the parents and the spouses of the soldiers who were wounded had rushed to their side at Fort Hood, some from across the country, some just, you know, lived there, or were posted there at Fort Hood. But the other thing that was really amazing is how strong those soldiers were. They had been really very grievously injured with more than one shot and injury. And all except one were awake and could talk, and they just were really in good shape before they had been injured. And so I guess they will be able to heal better than a lot of us would if we had had to suffer that kind of injury.
HH: On your drive back to the ranch after that visit, was there any melancholy or resignation that this war is just going to go on and on, and affect us in ways we hadn’t expected?
LB: Well, I think there was shock. We were shocked that it was actually an American soldier who perpetrated the horrible attack. That was shocking to us and sad, and really, that’s the whole crux of terrorism, and that is that one or two or a few people can bring such injury to our country. I mean, just a few hijackers who hijacked those planed on September 11th caused such harm. And I think that’s what’s so difficult about a war on terrorism, the asymmetrical nature of it. It’s new from any other kind of war before, and it makes it difficult. And it’s wearing. You know, it lasts a long time, because we have to be right 100% of the time to be able to avoid an attack. And so I understand how the people of the United States are weary at having this long, asymmetrical war. But I think, but as George and I both know, and this is also one of the comforts of living in the White House, is we know our country was able to stand up to the challenges of other -isms – Nazism, and fascism and communism. And we’ll be able to do that here.
HH: Did you ever reach some point of exhaustion? I was reading your chapter about Katrina, and amazing stuff I had never read before, and hat’s off to people like Ann Moore at Time for their work with Chalmette High School, and all your friends who replaced the libraries. But you went again and again and again. Did you ever just reach…George, Mr. President, I’ve just got to stop?
LB: No, not really. I didn’t really reach that point, and was, I did got to New Orleans a lot, and the whole Gulf Coast, and I’ve been a lot since we’ve been home, in fact. And the great news about it is that every time you go, things look better and better and better. And people have been able to rebuild, and houses are repainted and are looking great. The schools are a very good story out of New Orleans, but all the way across the Gulf Coast, newly built schools. And the heroes, the real heroes, are those teachers that, and school principals, and school superintendents that lost their own homes, and were living in FEMA trailers, but immediately went back to work to clean up their schools and rebuild their schools, because they knew families wouldn’t be able to come back unless there were schools for the kids. And so that’s been one of the really great things that I’ve had a chance to see. But the other thing, you’re right, when I started doing the research for that, I don’t think people know that the Coast Guard, the U.S. Coast Guard, rescued over 30,000 people from rooftops.
HH: No, they didn’t.
LB: …and with boats and with helicopter rescues. And so there was really extraordinary help that came immediately, that people didn’t know about, I think. And I want to get the word out about the Coast Guard. I was just in Nashville yesterday. Nashville had suffered the big flood on May 1st and 2nd, and they were telling me there that the Coast Guard had come in to help. I think it’s just something people don’t realize in the United States.
HH: Another aspect of Spoken From The Heart that is wonderful is your manifest love for the White House and its history. And there are some amazing pages in here on grief in the White House. You write about the death of Willie Lincoln, about which I knew, and about Calvin Coolidge, Jr., which I didn’t know at all. And it could be a melancholy place. In fact, there’s that scene with you and your mother-in-law, Mrs. Bush, walking through the rooms, wondering who might have been in what room and doing what thing. How do you fight off melancholy in a place with so much history and so much drama?
LB: Well, there’s such encouragement, really, when you live there, because you do look back in history, and you do note, I mean, you think about Lincoln, of course, all the time, because he’s the larger than life president, and you know how terrible things were for the United States when we were at war with each other, brother against brother when he lived there. And he didn’t just worry about that, but like you say, also had his personal tragedies, the death of his son, Willie Lincoln, while they lived at the White House. But when you lived there, and you’re aware of the history of the other families, both their personal tragedies and the tragedies that were affecting the United States, you know what happens. When you live there, you have the idea of knowing what, I mean, you have the advantage of knowing what happened. And we know that the United States became one union again, and that the abolition of slavery, I mean, all of the good things that came out of those wars and those tragedies, and that while peace might not be forever, neither is war. And there’s something really encouraging about living there, and knowing the way each generation of Americans have dealt with the tragedies and the challenges of their times, and how things have actually gotten better.
HH: I’ve heard President Bush talk about the power of prayers for him and for his family, and you write about it in the book as well. It’s really very palpable.
LB: It is. I mean, the amazing thing about our country is that so many people pray for the president. And every single time George and I were on any rope line, or in any group, many, many people would say to us, ‘I pray for you.’ I mean, even in my book tour last night, people would come through the line to get a signed book, and they’d say, ‘We still pray for you, and we pray for the president, and we prayed for you for eight years.’ And there’s something that really is very lifting about that for the person who does live in the White House.
HH: Now Mrs. Bush, I’ve got to talk with you about books to close this off. First of all, congratulations on the National Book Festival. As an author, and I know every author in America, regardless of their political position, would agree with this statement. We celebrate that book festival. It’s an amazing legacy every September. And now, someone is going to play Disraeli to your Victoria and say we authors to you this year. Are you going to go and talk about your book at your festival?
LB: Well, I don’t know about the National Book Festival, but I do know I’m going to the Texas Book Festival, which I started when George was governor. And those book festivals are great, and I’m really proud that they’ve continued. Last year, the National Book Festival drew about 130,000 people, bigger than my hometown of Midland. And I think that is just great. And you might not know, also, it’s been just recently published that an American philanthropist gave a grant of $5 million dollars to the National Book Festival so it can continue.
HH: Oh, that’s…you also talk so lovingly about authors. My wife was thrilled, she read it as well, that you’re an Andrew McCall Smith fan. And that’s not one of my authors, and I’m wondering, did you and the President have different reading lists? Or was there much crossover?
LB: Well, there’s some crossover, because we both read a lot of those great biographies that have come out over the last ten or twelve years or so by David McCullough and other authors about the founding fathers, and other American heroes. And that’s been fun, we both read those. But I really am a fiction writer…reader, rather, a fiction reader and literature reader. And George does like to read mysteries, but he mainly reads biographies and history.
HH: I want to conclude by asking you, it’s late in the book, you don’t spend much time on it, about Pages 383-386, about the attacks on the President and your family. And you mention some of the things that were said about him, the liar comment, the terrible things that were said by others. And then they would come through the receiving line. And the President never gave up on his graciousness, and I remarked on that on the radio many times. Did you ever urge him to do, though, I mean, did you ever tell him, you know, George, you really ought to let these people know what we think?
LB: No, of course not. I mean, George knew that he had a responsibility to the office of president, and he didn’t have the luxury of calling people names, or saying bad things about the leader or the Speaker, or other people in the Congress. That demeans his office. And he just would never do that. That’s just not really in his DNA anyway.
HH: Did it ever, did you ever come close to speaking your mind to people?
LB: No, I really didn’t.
HH: Good for you. And a last question about parenting, because it’s not in here. Which of you were the bigger worriers when your girls were in high school, or still in college? Who’s staying up late waiting for them to come home?
LB: Well, we both would wait for them to come home, and we breathed a sigh of relief when we would hear the door open in the middle of the night, especially in those years when they wanted to stay up really late. And as you know, George and I would love to go to bed very early. But now, they go to bed early, too, which has been interesting to find out that now that they’re working women, that’s what they want to do. We both worried about them. You know, of course we both worried about them, and we’re very proud of them. They’re doing very well.
HH: And a last question, Mrs. Bush, do you miss it much? Do you regret not being in the White House every day? We all know it has to come to an end at some point, and you saw your mother-in-law go through it. But what’s it like?
LB: Well, it’s been great to be home in Dallas. We’ve loved that. We’ve been able to spend a lot of time at our ranch, and at our new house in Dallas together. We lived in Dallas 15 years ago before George was elected governor. We had the baseball team there, and so we’re watching Texas Rangers baseball on television at night, going to a few games, and really enjoying our new life. I think because you know that when you’re inaugurated that four years later you’ll move out, and somebody else will move in, that there’s sort of an acceptance to it that makes you really not miss it that much. I miss the people that worked there, the butlers and the ushers, and all the people that we’ve known for years that we knew even when we visited President Bush and Barbara Bush. I miss the people that we made so many friends with. But on the other hand, we’re happy to be home and be regular citizens.
HH: Laura Bush, congratulations on a wonderful book, Spoken From The Heart, and good luck on the rest of the book tour.
LB: Thank you so much. Thanks a lot, Hugh.
HH: Thank you.
End of interview.