A Heartfelt Memoir

Former First Lady Laura Bush discusses new book, tragic accident, dating and marriage at GW’s Lisner Auditorium.

Laura Bush on stage discussing her book with Cokie Roberts
May 10, 2010

By Menachem Wecker

Former First Lady Laura Bush’s first foray into politics was a decided failure. After moving to Washington in the summer of 1969 with a friend from Southern Methodist University – “to see what life outside Texas would be like” – Mrs. Bush applied for a job in the office of Rep. George Mahon (D-Texas), whose district included her hometown of Midland, Texas.

“The congressman invited me for an interview. He looked over my resume, and then he asked if I could type or take shorthand. I said no,” Mrs. Bush told an audience of about 1,400 at Lisner Auditorium last night. The reading and conversation with Emmy Award-winning journalist Cokie Roberts, which was sponsored by The Smithsonian Associates, was part of a tour for Mrs. Bush’s new memoir, Spoken from the Heart.

Mrs. Bush decided to respond as she did to the congressman’s question since she had taken only a “quick course of typing” in summer school as a high school student but “hadn’t really paid a lot of attention.” He then asked if she thought her father would consider sending her to secretarial school.

“I thought about what my father had just spent to send me to SMU, and I said no again,” she said. “Congressman Mahon gently suggested that without being able to type or take shorthand I wasn’t qualified for a position in his office.”

But Mrs. Bush holds no grudges against the congressman – whose seat her husband would later compete for. “Had I stayed in Washington I may never have met George W. Bush,” she said. “In retrospect, I’m grateful that I was turned down by Capitol Hill.”

In addition to spending her version of the summer of ’69 in Washington, Mrs. Bush lived in the District with her husband in 1987 and 1988 when he worked on his father’s campaign, so moving to the White House in 2001 was her third time living in Washington.

In her talk, Mrs. Bush read a passage from her book about dating her husband, from their first date (miniature golf with chaperones) to their engagement some six weeks later. “Our childhoods overlapped so completely and our worlds were so intertwined, it was as if we had known each other our whole lives,” she said.

The date of the wedding between “the most eligible bachelor of Midland” and “the old maid of Midland” was scheduled in just minutes after George W. introduced Laura to his parents and announced their engagement.

George H. W. looked over his calendar, and chose the only free weekend that fall. The wedding date, Nov. 5, 1977, was one day after Laura’s birthday, and only three weeks away. “There was no time even to order printed wedding invitations. My mother wrote and addressed all of our invitations by hand,” she said.

The night before the wedding, George W. wept during his toast. “George and his father are deeply sentimental men. In years to come, to others, the cool remove of television would frequently obscure the depth of their caring, how much and how deeply their own hearts open,” Mrs. Bush said. “George Herbert Walker Bush didn’t even try to give a toast. Bar [Barbara Bush] spoke for the family.”

During her interview with Mrs. Bush, Ms. Roberts, who called herself “an enormous Laura Bush fan,” teased out a variety of personal stories. Mrs. Bush said she was advised by her mother-in-law not to criticize her husband’s speeches. “She had criticized her George’s speech, and he had come home for weeks later with letters saying it was the best speech he’d ever given,” she said. The one time she did find fault with a campaign speech, prompted by her husband, “he drove into the garage wall,” Mrs. Bush said.

Mrs. Bush and Ms. Roberts also discussed the first lady’s father and his service in the 104th infantry (Timberwolf Division) that liberated the concentration camp of Nordhausen. Mrs. Bush said her father came back from the war with eight small photographs of the concentration camp, and she and her mother cried at a Holocaust memorial service when they recognized his company’s flag during a procession. Mrs. Bush said she can not understand Holocaust deniers today.

Mrs. Bush also admitted she had not talked much about the accident in 1963, in which her car collided with another car, killing a classmate of hers. She called it a “huge tragedy” and a “life lesson,” in which she learned that however much one regrets past events, one cannot change them. Though she had discussed the accident in an interview in O Magazine, Mrs. Bush said she has not been asked about it much, so she has not discussed it in the past.

Audience members applauded and laughed on dozens of occasions during the event.

“The support for Mrs. Bush was overwhelming,” said Chris Brooks, a presidential administrative fellow in GW’s Development and Alumni Relations Division and a master’s candidate. “People of all ages packed the auditorium, and there was more applause as she told her life story than at an average State of the Union address.”

“I thought she was really fantastic!” said Emily Smith, a junior majoring in political communications who hails from Indialantic, Fla. “She was funny, interesting, and she appeared to be the epitome of class.”

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