Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Spoken from the Heart and Speaking for Myself

Spoken from the Heart by Laura Bush is an weird autobiographical mix. The first half of the book, is all about Bush's childhood and early career as a schoolteacher and librarian. It goes into great detail about her life, personality, etc. The second part barely skims the surface of her later life, mostly just listing people and places, little insight into how she actually felt or handled being the First Lady. And certainly little insight into her husband's presidency, although of course she doesn't ever criticize any of his actions. The years in the governorship of Texas gets barely even a chapter.
And it's fine, it's readable, but not very memorable. Bush's pretty open about the car accident she was in near the end of high school; where she failed to stop at a stop sign (because teenage driver distracted by friends, because it was night and intersection not marked well) and t-boned another car, which killed the other driver. Who happened to be a friend from her high school. She is very open about how traumatic it was, and how much that event changed her. She talks about how she never went over to see the boy's parents, as she didn't think they'd want to see her, she left a few months later for college, etc. But that after having her kids, she realized that was incredibly wrong and she should have gone. Yet there's no explanation or reason given for why she didn't seek his parents out then. Was it that they both had passed on already? That she couldn't find out where they lived (which doesn't seem possible, surely once your husband is the president of the US, you could have tracked them down)? It never says why, just kind of leaves that hanging.
And there's a few places, during the presidency on her husband's policies (although she probably wisely mostly steers clear of wading into that mess), but also in her youth, of protesting too much. She declares that no girl at her high school ever drank. Even when she's talking about how the boys drank. And then at college, declares that not one of her friends from back home ever tried drugs at college. Which, I don't know, it could be true. But seems pretty unlikely.

And I have so many things to say on the whole topic of the role of the First Lady. It's the highest unpaid, unelected position in the US. The First Lady is expected to have her own "policies' and "agendas," a huge staff (Hillary Rodham* said she had 50 people in the First Lady's office, I don't think Bush ever says how many she had), do domestic and international public goodwill tours, serve as hostess to all these events, redecorate/repair the White House, and so on. But again, not paid, not elected. And if the woman takes on too much of an interest in politics, she's castigated and pilloried for it (Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary Todd Lincoln, Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Rodham). But if she doesn't seem to show enough interest, she's mocked and derided for being too domestic/stand-offish/shy/etc (Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman, Laura Bush, Nancy Reagan). It's completely bogus. Could you imagine the shock and outrage if a First Lady decided that she wouldn't do these things? Or worse, if she continued on her own career while her husband were president? A First Lady who declared she would keep working during her husband's presidency would probably completely scuttle her husband's career.

*Hillary kept her birth name and never actually took Clinton's last name. When Bill Clinton was governor, his staff took it upon themselves to start adding Clinton to the end of her name to her documents or event programs or whatever. She fought it for a while, but eventually gave up.

It's such a contrast to then read a book like Speaking for Myself by Cherie Blair. She was the first prime minister's wife to work while her spouse was in office, as a barrister who specializes in human rights law. The Blairs were also the family with the youngest children while in office. And the British press never really knew what to make of her; she got into a few controversies for some things she said, especially for being perceived as an anti-monarchist, and for once getting the paper in her bathrobe (which, was pretty naive, it was their first or second morning in the Prime Minister's house, and you don't realize that there are going to be reporters staked outside? When the British press are some of the most invasive and aggressive anywhere? Come on.). While I have no real appreciation for her husband, I did find her book quite interesting.
As I say, the role of prime minister's wife is very different. First, she doesn't have a "title" like First Lady. Second, she has a staff of about 4, to help her keep her schedule, answer mail, and whatever else. But that's it, she doesn't need to set an "agenda" because she isn't a politician, she doesn't need to help plan events and dinners, or re-decorate the house, you know why? Because they have people who are paid to do those things. Amazing.

So anyway:

Spoken from the Heart: 2 stars out of 5
Speaking for Myself: 3 stars out of 5