The Endless Life of a First Lady

Like many people in Austin, I have a passing acquaintanceship with Laura Bush, who lived here for several years.  I liked her; she always seemed warm and down to earth.  I also appreciated her love of literature and writers, which resulted in her beginning and championing the Texas Book Festival.

Like many people in Austin, I’ve also spent the past several years wondering what Mrs. Bush was thinking and feeling about her husband’s disastrous presidency.

(If I wanted an answer, I certainly didn’t find it in the movie, W.  Oliver Stone seems completely incapable of creating a three-dimensional female character.  In his movie, Laura starts out as a believable and interesting character — but she quickly loses any complexity or spirit, becoming a bland and placid helpmate to the title character.  (Also, Condi Rice — not one of my favorite political figures to begin with — should sue; she comes across as a pandering halfwit with hair in a flip so rigid and ironlike it could double as a weapon.  Surely she wasn’t such a simpering idiot?))

But, over the years, I’ve watched politicians’ wives like Laura Bush, Cindy McCain, Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Edwards with both sympathy and a growing sense of horror.  What a terrible price they pay for lives that are both privileged and brutal.  An eternal smile is pasted on their faces.  They are always gracious, always applauding at the proper moment.  They have no privacy, no unguarded moment, no spontaneity unless it’s been carefully vetted and choreographed.

When husband stray or underage children drink, it’s in the full glare of the spotlight.  They can’t air their own opinions, unless those expressions would be helpful to their husbands’ image.  I can’t imagine a worse life, no matter how gilded the cage.  You’re a well-dressed accessory, a ceremonial prop, a reflecting mirror of adoration and approval.  (How do you wage arguments with the leader of the Free World?  Would somebody shoot you dead if you aimed a lamp at his head, since he was acting like such a swine?)

After decades as a political wife, Hillary Clinton has finally come into her own.  Elizabeth Edwards is struggling with metastatic breast cancer.  I have no idea what life is like for Cindy McCain, gorgeous and rich and comparatively young, who’s married to a man who seemed increasingly bitter and irascible over the course of his campaign; frankly, I doubt that losing the presidency to someone he despised has improved his disposition.  Lock up the guns when he’s in town!

And that leaves Laura Bush, who will leave the White House in January.  She’ll be linked forever to a failed presidency, trailed by Secret Service agents the rest of her life.  My view is that this entire country and the world have paid a terrible price for her husband’s wrongheaded presidency; I can only imagine the price she must have paid and what it must feel like beneath that unwavering smile and steady gaze.

It’s more than an eight-year stint.  She’s signed up for the rest of her life.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

5 comments… add one
  • Really good point.  I just know I could never hold my tongue that long.  Hillary did an amazing job in that regard.

  • Lynn Link

    I do feel terribly sorry for Laura Bush, but she won’t be trailed by secret service the rest of her life.  Clinton was the last president to get secret service for life.  The Bushes will get it for 8 years after leaving office.

  • Lynn Link

    Actually, it’s 10 years.

    “Former presidents and their spouses for their lifetimes, except when the spouse remarries. In 1997, Congressional legislation became effective limiting Secret Service protection to former presidents for a period of not more than 10 years from the date the former president leaves office.”

  • It’s hard to imagine what Laura Bush’s inner life must be. Curtis Sittenfeld’s recent novel “American Wife” provides some fun fictional conjecture.

    Are you as excited about Michelle Obama as I am? I think she’ll be the best first lady since the last Mrs O, Jackie Kennedy!

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Thanks for the Secret Service info, Lynn.  I didn’t realize the law had changed.

    Jared — I’m excited about the whole Obama family.  Haven’t read “American Wife” yet, but have heard great things about it.  (I’m currently trying to monitor my hardback-buying impulses.)


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