Laura Bush, From West Texas To The White House In her eight years at the White House, former first lady Laura Bush had a Mona Lisa quality to her. That smile — was it one of peace, one of joy, or was it a mask? In her new memoir, Spoken from the Heart, former first lady Laura Bush writes about her childhood in Midland, Texas. She also opens up about life in the White House. Michele Norris talks to the former first lady about her book and her life now, after leaving Washington.

Laura Bush, From West Texas To The White House

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From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris. In her eight years as first lady, Laura Bush had a Mona Lisa quality to her. That smile, was it one of peace, one of joy, or was it a mask? Perhaps it was all three, according to Laura Bush's new memoir, "Spoken from the Heart."

In it, she opens up about life in the White House during her husband's two terms. She also writes about her early years: her childhood in Midland, Texas, the night she was at the wheel in a car accident that left one her classmates dead, and the circumstances that led to her being an only child.

Ms. LAURA BUSH (Former First Lady; Author, "Spoken from the Heart"): My mother had three other pregnancies, and the first one was when I was two. And I had this very vague memory of looking at a nursery window in a hospital or in Western Clinic in Midland.

I don't remember looking at a baby. I just knew my little brother was there, and he did live for several days. Today, with the way medicine is, of course he would have lived. He was not that premature. But then, in 1948, he just lived for a few days.

And that was a pervasive loss for my family. I was always very aware that one of the big disappointments of my parents' life was that they didn't have more children and that they wanted those children, and I was very aware of that, and I wanted them, too. I wanted those brothers and a sister. That was a very important part of my childhood and really of my whole life because I ended up being an only child without those siblings.

NORRIS: You really get a strong sense of Midland in this book, and Washington did have a bit of a Texas flair during the eight years that you and your husband lived in the White House, but we knew Texas more from the Bush family's point of view. Here, we had your vantage point, and we really understood, I think you come to understand a lot more about you and your husband and your view of the world from what we learn about Midland.

Ms. BUSH: I wanted people to get a sense for what it's like out there. The desert, the very, very plain landscape with the big sky I think also inspired sort of a plainness of spirit. Any sort of pretensions look especially ridiculous when you're there in such a hard West Texas landscape.

It was also a beautiful place to live. Watching the stars at night was one of the things my mother and I would do. We'd go lie on a blanket in the yard and look up at the stars, and you know, there were just a lot of really wonderful experiences that we could have there in sort of the isolated way that Midland was.

NORRIS: What about growing up in West Texas prepared you for living in the White House and rolling with the punches?

Ms. BUSH: Well, I think there's a certain strength when you grow up in a landscape like that. There is certainly a sense, and this happened after the car accident that I was involved in, of swallowing your troubles, of not really talking about them, just going ahead, that sort of stiff-upper-lip style that a lot of people in the West have, the temperament that is calm and that I was able to not be so stressed or so thrown by tragic happenings.

NORRIS: There are many surprises within the pages of the book, and one of the most surprising things for me was reading about your experiences on the morning of 9/11. You wound up spending some time that morning in the office of Senator Ted Kennedy. And one of the most interesting things in the book is your, the way you were watching what was going on in New York but also carefully watching him.

Ms. BUSH: That's right. A Secret Service agent told me as I got in the car that morning that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I was on my way to Capitol Hill to brief a Senate Education Committee on Early Childhood Education with the plans to meet Senator Kennedy because he was the chairman of the committee.

And so I went on. We had no idea. I mean, when we first got in the car, we thought it was some strange accident, but by the time we got to the Capitol, we knew about the second plane. So we knew when we got there that it was a terrorist attack.

And I went into Senator Kennedy's office, and he gave me a tour of his office and pointed out mementos that were on his wall, including a letter that he still found very amusing from his brother Jack to his mother, where Jack says that Teddy is getting fat. He wrote it when Teddy was just a boy.

And he kept up this steady stream of small talk while I was looking over his shoulder at the television that was in the corner of the office and watching the towers fall.

I don't know, and I've speculated many times, if this was his own way to handle tragedy because he'd had so many shocks in his own life or if he was afraid I would fall apart, and this was a way to keep me distracted and just to keep the conversation going. I'll never know.

NORRIS: We saw how that changed the presidency based on the president's public performance. Based on what you saw in more private spaces, how did that change your family, and how did it change your husband?

Ms. BUSH: Well, it changed both of us. I mean, it changed his whole presidency in one instant. You know, we had both expected when we moved to Washington to be just working on education and tax cuts and all the things that George had campaigned on. That changed, you know, and instead it became really almost eight years of foreign policy.

So it changed it in many ways like that but also in the responsibility that George felt and that I felt, too, to make sure we didn't have another terrorist attack.

And then, once we went in to Afghanistan and then later into Iraq, the constant worry about our troops.

ROBERTS: Are you worried that history will be hard on this presidency, on this presidency, on your husband's presidency?

Ms. BUSH: No, I'm not, not at all. I mean, I think George did really what he should have done under the circumstances that we lived in with the terrorist attack. He kept our country safe for the whole time he was there - the rest of the time he was there. He's liberated two countries.

Iraq looks like they're going to be able to stand up a democracy. I think Afghanistan can, too, and I'm happy about that.

NORRIS: Most presidents, when they leave the White House, most presidential families, in fact, have a bit of an adjustment. They're sort of like the air goes out of the balloon for a while, and it can be a very tough adjustment. How has that adjustment been for you?

Ms. BUSH: Well, it's actually been very good for us. I worried about George. I was not so much worried about myself because I had really started to anticipate the next part of our life.

I had gone to Dallas and started looking for a house to buy, but I knew for George, the president of the United States has every problem in the world on his desk. Every problem comes to the desk of the president of the U.S., and I knew that George would go from every problem on his desk to nothing, to a totally clean desk, and I wondered how he would handle that.

But he's handled it very well, and he made a very conscious decision not to second-guess the new president.

NORRIS: First lady Laura Bush, thank you very much for coming in to talk to us.

Ms. BUSH: Thank you very much.

NORRIS: So good to have you here in Studio 3A. We've been speaking with Laura Bush. Her book is called "Spoken from the Heart."

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