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An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady

Written by Ronald KesslerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Ronald Kessler



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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

When Laura Bush moved into the White House on January 20, 2001, everyone wanted to know what kind of first lady she would be. Would she be like Mamie Eisenhower? Would she follow in Barbara Bush’s footsteps? Would she be another Hillary Clinton?

“I think I’ll just be Laura Bush,” she would say.

On Saturday, April 30, 2005, the world got a glimpse of what that meant when she pushed aside the leader of the free world and stole the show at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Wearing a shimmering lime green Oscar de la Renta gown, Laura wisecracked that she was a “desperate housewife” married to a president who was always asleep at nine.

Replayed constantly on the air, the stand-up routine with its impeccable comedic timing turned the first lady into a glittering star. But while the performance catapulted her to new status, it did not answer the question of who this former teacher and librarian really is and just what role she plays in influencing her husband and shaping his administration. The Bushes are more effective than the FBI or CIA at keeping secret what goes on behind the scenes at the White House, the ranch, or Camp David.

Now, New York Times bestselling author Ronald Kessler draws back that curtain in the first biography of Laura Bush to be written with White House cooperation. Based on interviews with her closest friends and confidantes from childhood to the present, as well as family members and administration heavyweights like Condoleezza Rice and Andrew Card, Kessler paints a portrait of a woman who, even as she ascended to the heights of political fortune and power, never lost touch with the bedrock American values she absorbed in her youth.

In this unprecedented account, Kessler reveals:

How Laura’s opinions have brought budget changes to a range of federal agencies and have affected her husband’s policies, appointments, and worldview.
Why Laura told her press secretary in May 2001 she did not want to do any more media interviews.
What President Bush said to Laura at the dinner table after giving the “go” for the invasion of Iraq, and what his father, former President George H. W. Bush, wrote him the next day about the war.
What Laura’s own political opinions are and what her relationship with twin daughters Jenna and Barbara is really like.
What Laura says in private about Hillary Clinton, media attacks on her husband, and his victory in the 2004 election.
And why Laura, at the age of seventeen, missed a stop sign and caused a fatal accident that tragically left one of her best friends dead.

LAURA BUSH offers a remarkable look at the private world of this famously reserved woman, as well as the beliefs and attitudes that shape it. The book will surprise readers whose knowledge of the first lady comes from cautious media interviews and speeches.

Laura Bush’s approval rating stands at 85 percent. Since opinion polls first began asking about them, no first lady has received a higher rating. This moving biography is the first to penetrate the secret world of the president’s stealth counselor who is one of our most admired public figures.

Excerpt

1
Hostile Terrain

From the air, Midland looks as if a hurricane had just hit. The few trees are short, like Christmas trees. The grass is yellow, the land flat. Dust coats the paved roads. There are no lakes or rivers. Visitors could be forgiven for thinking they were stepping off onto the moon.

With annual rainfall of only thirteen and a half inches, Midland is so arid that, to keep their lawns green in summer, residents must water them every day. To create flower beds, they often have to use jackhammers to cut through the brittle crust formed from caliche, a weathered soil rich in calcium. Until the city started mixing more surface water from the Colorado River Municipal Water District with its own well water, tap water would cause brown stains on teeth because it had excess levels of fluoride.

Two or three times a year, usually in the spring, a bad sandstorm hits, obscuring the sun as in a total eclipse. The sand stings and enters the nostrils. Drivers peering through their windshield cannot see the front of their car. The sand seeps through the frames of windows and doors and piles up on floors and windowsills. Sand frosts the panes as well.

The wind uproots the tumbleweeds--tangled balls of light, stiff branches that can balloon to the size of a Volkswagen. The tumbleweeds roll before the wind and clump together in masses of five or ten along the cinderblock walls residents build around their backyards to try to keep out the sand. Into this inhospitable environment, on November 4, 1946, Laura Lane Welch was born.

Located 335 miles west of Dallas in what is known as West Texas, Midland was named for Midway Station, a section house where railroad employees could stay overnight. The Texas and Pacific Railway built the station in June 1881 halfway between Dallas and El Paso, an area crisscrossed by a Comanche trail and wagon roads. The name was changed from Midway Station to Midland on January 4, 1884, when a post office was established. Until Herman N. Garrett moved his herd of sheep there in 1882, the area had no permanent residents. In 1885, Midland County was established with Midland as the county seat.

Soon, Nelson Morris, a Chicago meatpacker, bought 200,000 acres from the state for his Black Angus ranch and introduced cattle to the area. Farmers began moving in, and by 1920 over 4,600 acres in Midland County were devoted to cotton. In 1923, oil was discovered seventy miles southeast of Midland, touching off a boom that has continued, off and on, to this day. Located at the center of the Permian Basin, which has 22 percent of the nation's oil reserves, Midland would become one of the greatest petroleum-producing areas in the country.

Laura's ancestors on her father's side can be traced back to England and to Christopher DeGraffenried, a Swiss nobleman born in 1691. DeGraffenried moved to Philadelphia and eventually to Charleston, South Carolina. Laura's paternal grandfather, Mark Anthony Welch, was born in Texas in 1873. He began as a carpenter and became a homebuilder. According to family legend, he became a friend of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, and sometimes traveled with him. His wife, Marie Lula Lane, was born in Arkansas in 1873. They moved to Lubbock, Texas, 120 miles north of Midland, in 1918.

As with her father's ancestors, Laura's mother's side goes back mainly to England, except that she is "one-eighth French," according to genealogist Robert Battle, who, along with William Addams Reitwiesner, has traced Laura's origins. In doing so, they discovered that Laura, on her father's side, is a very distant cousin of Senator John McCain. Both are descendants of Allen Valentine, who lived in Virginia in the 1700s and served as a lieutenant colonel with the North Carolina Troops during the American Revolution.

On her mother's side, Laura also has an ancestor who fought in the Revolution: John Wiseman, a private in the Pennsylvania militia and a descendant of one Abraham Wiseman, who lived in Philadelphia in the early 1700s. While his name sounds Jewish, he was probably a Mennonite, according to the two genealogists.

Laura's maternal grandfather, Halsey Sinclair Hawkins, was born in 1894 in Little Rock, Arkansas. While delivering mail for the U.S. Post Office, he met his future wife, Jessie Laura Sherrard. Laura's mother, Jenna Louise Hawkins, was born in Little Rock in 1919. But having been gassed in combat during World War I, Hawkins sought out a dry climate, and they settled first in Tyler, Texas, then in the tiny village of Canutillo about twelve miles northwest of El Paso, where they opened what was known as a tourist court on Nuway Road. A precursor of a motel, it had guest cottages, a restaurant, and a small grocery store.

Laura's father, Harold Bruce Welch, was born in Oklahoma in 1912 and moved with his parents to Lubbock when he was six. In 1944, he married Jenna Hawkins in the military chapel at Fort Bliss. Jenna had attended Texas Western College--now the University of Texas at El Paso--and had been working as a bookkeeper at an El Paso department store when a mutual friend introduced them.

Harold served during World War II with the Army's 555th AntiAircraft Artillery Battalion as a master gunner. On April 11, 1945, he was among the soldiers who liberated Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in Nordhausen in central Germany, 150 miles southeast of Hamburg. An estimated 20,000 prisoners were killed at the top secret camp, where prisoners made V2 rockets in underground tunnels as long as two miles. As the Allies advanced, Hitler began sending prisoners to the Bergen-Belsen camp. In what became known as death marches, tens of thousands of prisoners died of starvation or cold in the winter or were shot by SS guards when they could no longer walk.

"It was said we discovered six thousand political prisoners, but alas, Þve thousand were corpses," said Father Edward P. Doyle, a Catholic chaplain in the 104th Infantry Division, who participated in the liberation with the 555th. "A sight beyond description, mutilated, beaten, starved skeletons. A thousand were 'living' in various stages of decay, merely breathing among the already dead."

"I can still remember the smell of burning bodies as we entered the camp," said Marvin S. Brettingen, who served with Welch and played cards with him while on maneuvers in Louisiana.

A month after the liberation, on May 14, 1945, Major General Terry Allen commended Harold's battalion and its efforts against a "fanatic enemy."

"Frequently in forward positions, under hostile observation, and suffering casualties from deadly direct enemy fire, all members of the 555th AAA Battalion have proved their courage and skill," Allen wrote. Besides destroying eleven Nazi planes and "probably" destroying another eleven planes, the battalion rendered close ground support to the infantry on thirty-four occasions.(1)

After the war, Harold took a job as a district manager with Universal CIT Credit Corporation in El Paso. When an oil boom created a need for homes for workers, Harold and Jenna moved to Midland, where he became a homebuilder. For some ventures, he joined forces with Lloyd E. Waynick, another builder, and together they formed Waynick and Welch Company. Eventually, Harold would build 200 homes.

Harold maintained his office in a tiny room off the kitchen of his home at 2500 Humble Avenue. On Sundays, the Welches attended the First United Methodist Church, where Laura was baptized and would later marry. Harold and Jenna were a team. He built the houses, drawing up a rough floor plan and then taking it to a draftsman to finish. Jenna kept the books.

Jenna was a traditional stay-at-home mother, which was the norm in those days. As in the television show Father Knows Best, Jenna knew all Laura's friends and spent most of her time in the kitchen. She often made chili with red beans, rice, and guacamole.

"Laura's mom always fixed three meals a day," remembered Jan Donnelly O'Neill, who became friends with Laura in the ninth grade. "Her dad would often be home for lunch. So she was always in the kitchen."(2)

After living at two other homes in Midland, in 1961, Harold built the three-bedroom ranch house on Humble Avenue that would be Laura's home until she went to college. It was a typical fifties-era suburban neighborhood--kids biking, playing baseball. Laura's friends and neighbors from those days would be her friends for life.

Harold was a warm man with a slight paunch and a ruddy face. Outside the house, he always wore a fedora, which covered a large bald spot. He was a cutup, full of energy and always cracking jokes. "Harold was really funny, had a great sense of humor," recalled Laura's cousin Mary Mark Welch, whose father was Harold's only sibling. "He was boisterous, happy-go-lucky, and had a very positive attitude." In this respect, friends observe, he was very much like the man she later married.

"I remember the first time I met her father in Midland," said Janet Kinard Heyne. A Kappa Alpha Theta sorority sister of Laura's, she roomed with her when Laura was working in Dallas and Houston. "Harold was the kind who had so much nervous energy and paced around all the time," she said. "When I first met George, I thought he was like her father. Super-energetic and couldn't sit still."(3)

Also like her future husband, Harold was intensely sociable. Almost every morning, he would smoke and drink coffee at Johnny's Barbecue with the owners, his friends John and Betty Hackney. Harold called the small restaurant the "Sick Pig" because he thought the pig on a spit painted on the sign outside the place looked like it had been stricken with a grave illness. Occasionally, Harold ate at the restaurant, where customers savored succulent barbecue beef brisket, pork ribs, turkey breast, ham, or German sausage with barbecue sauce lovingly ladled over them. When asked for the secret to his barbecue, Johnny would say, "You want to know how the hell we make barbecue? Barbecue is the simplest thing in the world. We don't do a damn thing! Just put it in a big ol' pit and cook it slow with oak all night long."

Also like George, Harold was an ardent sports fan. He was a bit of a gambler, too. Either with friends or through a broker, he would place bets on college and professional football games.

"They had football parties at their house," Mary Mark Welch remembered. "They watched the games and bet on different teams. Harold would do research. He would call around and find out which player on which team had an ingrown toenail."(4)

Because of the possibility that it might become a politically embarrassing issue, "Harold quit betting completely when George Senior became vice president," Johnny Hackney said.

He also quit smoking after his brother, Dr. Mark Lane Welch, a general surgeon, reviewed Harold's chest X-ray and found a suspicious spot on his lung. It turned out to be lung cancer, and Harold had successful surgery to remove part of his lung.(5)

Like her mother, Laura was an only child--unusual for a family in those days. From an early age, she was a self-sufficient child, immersing herself in books. She also always had a dog as a companion, the last one being Marty, short for Martini. When Laura was an infant, the Welch’s had a dog named Bully. Laura could say "Bully" before she could say "mom" or "dad," according to what Jenna Welch told Mary Mark Welch.

"Bully was a mutt who would just run away," Mary Mark Welch said. "He was always being picked up by the dogcatcher. He would go to a department store. They had a pneumatic-tube system for getting change. The central office sent back the change. The dog would go and watch it. The dog thought it was really neat. Aunt Jenna was in there one time. A salesperson said, 'Do you know who that dog belongs to? He is in here all the time.' She told me she said, 'I don't know.' "

When Bully ran away, Harold would have to go to the pound and pay a dollar to get him back. "The next day, Bully got out again and was picked up again. Harold went down to pick him up a few days later," Mary Mark Welch explained. "The dogcatcher said, 'That will be a dollar.' Harold said, 'I don't know if he's worth a dollar.' The dogcatcher said, 'Well, just take him.' "

Laura's parents had not intended to have so small a family. At a young age, Laura was aware of her mother's difficulties bearing children. Both before and after Laura was born, her mother had several stillborns. One child, born before Laura, died when it was a few days old. Once, Laura's parents took her on a visit to the Gladden Center for Adoption in Fort Worth. In the end, however, they decided against adopting. Later in life, Laura and George would consider adoption when she, too, was having trouble conceiving a child.

Being conceived after such trauma affected Laura's personality. As she herself once explained, "I felt very obligated to my parents. I didn't want to upset them in any way."

Perhaps in response to the hardships they had faced, both Laura's parents adopted an irreverent, lighthearted approach to life. Laura and her father were constantly poking fun at each other, and Laura's mother never took herself seriously. Laura was so close to her father that after her twins was born in Midland, Harold would drop in almost every day to see her and the girls. But Laura's mother was the stronger influence on her. Her calm competence and quiet virtues, though of a kind that may be easily overlooked, were an enduring legacy to her daughter.

For twenty years, until Jenna moved to a retirement home in June 2004, Kathy Robbins lived across the street from her on Humble Avenue. The woman she describes is, like her daughter, first and foremost a loyal and constant friend.

Jenna "always had all the time in the world for conversation," said Robbins, who continues to be her friend. "She was the best neighbor in the world. We would call each other whenever for sugar, coffee, whatever we were out of. If her dishwasher was broken, she was at my house and vice versa. I watched the way she is with other people. It's all about them, not her. She always sees the best in people, and she always gets that in return."(6)

The only time Robbins heard Jenna say anything negative was when the press was beating up on the twins. "She thought you can say whatever you want to about the grown-ups, but leave the kids alone," Robbins said.

Jenna had a range of interests, from astronomy to bird-watching. But most of all, she loved to read. "Jenna wore heavy glasses, so she didn't get involved in sports," her childhood friend Jackie Stubblefield Ball recalled. "Her family attributed it to reading too much."(7)

Jenna is "very educated about astronomy," Kathy Robbins said. "She would say, 'Did you know there is going to be an eclipse? Let's take your kids. Let's get our flashlights and meet in the front yard. Let's spread our blankets out and look at the stars.' She would show the children all of these things. Or she would call in the fall and say, 'Butterflies are migrating.' We would meet in the front yard, and she would show me all these different birds. She would do a bird count twice a year with her birding group."

Laura adopted most of her mother's interests, especially reading.

Later in life, she kept a birding journal and went on bird-watching trips with her mother to places like Belize.

"Oh!" Jenna would say when she learned a new fact. Some might think that Jenna's enthusiasm for the wonders of nature was born of naiveté. But--very much like her daughter in this respect--it reflects a conscious choice to go through life with a positive attitude. "It's how she chooses to view the world and the people around her," Robbins said.


From the Hardcover edition.
Ronald Kessler

About Ronald Kessler

Ronald Kessler - Laura Bush

Photo © Brooks Glogau

RONALD KESSLER is the New York Times bestselling author of The Terrorist Watch, The Bureau, Inside the White House, and The CIA at War. A former reporter for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, he has won sixteen journalism awards. Kessler lives in Potomac, Maryland, with his wife, Pamela.
Praise

Praise

“Laura Bush is a remarkable woman—a great mother, daughter, daughter-in-law, and, of course, first lady. The thing that makes this gentle, bright woman dearer than all of the above is that she makes the president, our son, happy. Ron Kessler does a great job of capturing the spirit of Laura Bush.”

—Former First Lady Barbara Bush
Ronald Kessler

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Ronald Kessler - Laura Bush

Photo © Brooks Glogau

12/3/2014 The University Club of Washington, DC 1135 16th Street, NW

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