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Book Review

Hearts and Minds

George Bush's first lady reveals herself to be unexpectedly complex

Halfway through George W Bush's second term, after his disastrous incursion into Iraq, with his popularity in the polls at an all-time low, Laura Bush describes an encounter with a journalist who comes to interview her.

"So what's a nice woman like you doing with a guy like him?" he asks. Well, exactly. It's the question

Spoken From the Heart
by Laura Bush
464pp, Simon & Schuster Ltd.

that's at the heart of this book. What is a nice woman like her doing with a guy like him? It hovers at the edge of nearly every page, and finally it seems that she might be forced to explain. But no. Bizarrely she interprets it as a question about a former gang member she was then working with, and it's impossible to tell from the context whether this was actually the case. Or that she simply refuses to even acknowledge let alone contemplate the depth of hatred that much of the world felt towards George Bush.

Because whatever else she is, Laura Bush is the most loyal of loyal wives. Her place has always been at her husband's side, smiling gamely at the cameras, her make-up immaculate, not a hair out of place. And although she's widely believed to be considerably more liberal than her husband she doesn't believe in repealing America's abortion law, Roe v Wade, and she recounts how she told George not to make an issue of gay marriage still she feels the need to assert that Iraq is now "a far less violent, far more peaceful and stable place", despite all the evidence to the contrary.

But she's not simply a two-dimensional Republican version of a surrendered wife, and Spoken From the Heart is not simply a rousing appreciation of life by George's side although that's there too. There's the small, tantalising details of first lady-dom such as when Tony and Cherie came to stay at the Texas ranch on the eve of the invasion of Iraq and "after dinner, Tony Blair borrowed a guitar and strummed and sang along with the San Antonio band Daddy Rabbit". Meanwhile, Cherie took George to task over his refusal to ratify the International Criminal Court.

Or the mildly revelatory titbit that before suffering an hour-long receiving line, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall asked for glasses of ice: "The staff dutifully produced them, and the prince removed a flask from his pocket and added to each a small splash of what I presume was straight gin."

Or, how, on the Saturday after 9/11, holed up in Camp David, after a day of intense meetings, "Condi Rice, the daughter of a presbyterian minister, took a seat at the piano and began to play hymns", while attorney general John Ashcroft "encouraged us all to hum and sing".

She remained an only child, solitary, bookish, close to her parents, leading a safe, uneventful childhood right up until a fateful evening, aged 17, when she ran a stop sign, crashed her car, and killed the driver of the other vehicle: who, in an awful twist, turned out to be one of her best friends from school.

"I didn't have to tell anyone what happened," she writes. "Every single person in Midland knew." It's a shadow that hangs over her 20s, "a guilt I will carry for the rest of my life, far more visible to me than the scar etched in the bump on my knee", and just as she did as a child, she turns to books for refuge. She trains as a librarian and recounts "travelling though the frigid snow-laden novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, in the swampy heat of Houston, where by midmorning you could break a sweat simply by stepping outside".

And then she met George. They'd briefly been at the same school in Midland, and lived in the same apartment block in Houston, and knew of each other but had never properly met. And if we had, she says, maybe nothing would have happened. "But at that particular moment on that warm summer night, both of us were hoping to find someone."

Can you judge a man by his wife? Or ever understand someone else's relationship from the outside? They're tantalising questions. Because Laura Bush is not simply the little Republican wife. And Spoken From the Heart is not the book I was expecting President Bush's first lady to write. And although the second half of the book is frustratingly opaque, a litany of functions attended and good causes supported, what comes through nevertheless is that Laura Bush is a more complex, interesting character than perhaps anyone had cause to guess.

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