April 03, 2006,
Veteran reporter Ronald Kessler is author of Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady, released today. His is the first book on Mrs. Bush to get her cooperation.
This is Kessler's second book on the George W. Bush administration.
He spoke to NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez about the First Lady and the White House.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is Laura Bush a traditional First Lady?
Ronald Kessler: The media have described Laura Bush as traditional, but I think that characterization is wrong. Laura had a profession as a schoolteacher and librarian. She was in no hurry to get married and wound up marrying George W. Bush when she was 31. She is more versed in literature than most English professors or any previous First Lady, including Jacqueline Kennedy. So she is a very independent woman who believes in equality of the sexes but doesn't shrilly proclaim herself as a feminist.
As First Lady, Laura has worked to reintroduce phonics or sounding out letters to reading instruction after liberal educators decided that learning that "b" is pronounced "baa" is boring. Laura conceived of her own program Helping America's Youth to focus on the constellation of problems that young boys may have. Laura has broad influence on her husband and his administration. Unknown to the public, because of her, budgets for a range of federal agencies have been increased or not cut. The administration and Bush consult with her before making key appointments. In some cases, she has suggested strategy. As Condi Rice told me, it was Laura's "initiative and her idea to really fully and completely expose what the Taliban regime was doing to women, emphasizing violations of women's rights prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan."
Finally, Laura widens Bush's worldview. She has influenced him, as one example, to provide $15 billion over 15 years to combat AIDS in Africa. She also counsels him, often through teasing or just rolling her eyes. In one well-known example, when Bush said "Bring them on," referring to those who would attack American forces in Iraq, Laura said to him, "Whoa Bushie!"
At the same time, Laura is both a supportive wife and a devoted mother to her twin daughters.
"The most important thing in her life was her family," Israel J. Hernandez, one of Bush's closest aides who lived with the family for a year during Bush's first run for governor, told me. "Even when the campaigns started, she always tried to time everything so she was there when the girls were there and when the president came back from trips. She would make sure they all ate together and spent time together."
"Just today," Andy Card said when I interviewed him, "there was a very touching moment. The president was getting ready to go off in the helicopter to Kentucky to talk about Social Security reform. He had had a meeting with members of the House on Social Security reform measures. He came out of the Cabinet room. The helicopter had landed. People were getting on their coats to run off to the helicopter."
Karen Keller, Bush's personal secretary, ran outside.
"The First Lady is calling for you," she said.
"Is it an emergency?" Bush asked.
"I don't think it's an emergency, but she'd like to talk with you before you leave," Keller said.
"He goes back into the Oval Office and calls her on the phone," Card said. After a minute he opened the door to the Oval Office and looked out with a smile on his face.
"That was great," Bush said to his chief of staff. "She was just calling to tell me she loves me."
Lopez: Laura Bush didn't talk to you even after already having written A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush, a friendly book on this White House. Why?
Kessler: It's hard to overestimate Laura's modesty. She won't watch herself on television. When she joined the Daughters of the American Revolution in 2001, she never told the Bush family or her closest friends. She instructs her speechwriters never to use the personal pronoun "I." She is happy to talk about policy or to further the president's agenda. But talking about herself to the degree that would be required for a book would make her uncomfortable.
At the same time, Laura allowed her friends, family members, and aides to talk with me. While Bush himself approved cooperation on my previous book, obtaining cooperation for the book on Laura wasn't easy. The public-relations people were focused on the 2004 reelection campaign, and who wants to take a chance that a book about the president's wife might go awry?
Into the breach stepped Laura's close friend Anne Sewell Johnson, who mentioned the project to Laura and began helping. Anne's husband Clay Johnson III, George Bush's friend from Andover, roommate at Yale, chief of staff when he was governor, and head of presidential personnel at the White House, had been my rabbi on the previous book. Anne provided phone numbers, leads, insights, and anecdotes. She had a sophisticated understanding of what was needed to make a good book. When friends or aides were hesitant to talk, she vouched for me. I called her my blond rabbi.
Laura had never cooperated on a book before, and her overwhelming modesty made her hesitate. But once she did, I became privy to a secret world that neither she nor her husband had allowed any outsiders to see. Either by checking with her directly or by going through her press secretary Gordon Johndroe and later Susan Whitson, friends, family members, and aides got the word that the First Lady thought it would be fine if they talked with me. Most had not talked to the media since before George Bush entered the White House. Others had never talked to the media-people like Laura's former boyfriends and Judy Dykes Hester, who was the only passenger in the car with her when, at the age of seventeen, Laura ran into a car driven by a close friend.
Almost on a real time basis, I was able to reveal what Laura and the president are like in private, from how they interact with their twin daughters Jenna and Barbara to what they discuss at the dinner table in the White House residence. As relayed to me by Gordon Johndroe, Laura's only desire was that the book be accurate.
Lopez: At one point the First Lady stopped talking to the press altogether. Why? Why not fight back?
Kessler:Laura never wanted to be a public figure in the first place. Before their wedding, Laura made Bush promise she would never have to give a speech. The thought made her stomach churn. After entering the White House, Laura became disgusted with the media's focus on whether she is a "traditional" First Lady and whether she gives her husband "advice." She told her press secretary, Noelia Rodriguez, she did not want to do any more interviews. Rodriguez wondered what was the point of having a press secretary? It all went back to the fact that for Laura, being on stage and satisfying the public was not one of her priorities.
"There are a lot of things that are important in her life," Israel Hernandez told me. "I think because her life was moving so quickly, I think she wanted to make sure those things that were important stayed important. The ability to go for a walk, to go out to a restaurant, how she spent her time, and the fact that some of her friends whom she would see almost daily were no longer close by, all played a role. She decided to slow things down, not be in the public eye, and find a balance between her public role and her personal life."
After a month, Laura slowly returned to doing press interviews. After 9/11, she realized that she could help the country by being a reassuring presence on TV.
Lopez: How does she make her influence felt? Has she been known to give Andy Card orders?
Kessler:Unlike Hillary Clinton, who made it clear she thought of herself as co-president, Laura exercises her influence in a quiet way. She is respectful of the authority of Bush's aides. But they recognize that she has exceptionally good judgment, and they are happy to consult with her on matters in which she may have an interest or on potential appointments where she knows the individual. Those areas of interest include education, the arts, women's rights, juveniles with social problems, AIDS, libraries, and the humanities.
Bush's aides also know that when Laura voices an opinion, it carries great weight with the president. According to the mythology in the media, Bush is a puppet of Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, or neo-cons at the Pentagon. Alternatively, the president is so stubborn he listens to no one. The truth is that Bush makes his own decisions, but the greatest influence on him is his wife.
If Laura feels that the staff is offering counsel that is "inconsistent with what she sees in the president's heart, she is not bashful about telling us," Andy Card said. When considering important appointments or appointments to agencies that are part of her portfolio of interests, Bush solicits her opinion. "He will say, 'Why don't you check with Laura and see if she has any ideas?' Or he'll say, 'Did you run that by Laura? What's Laura's reaction?'" Card told me.
Lopez: Abortion comes up in the book. She seems to disagree with the president on it. On what else?
Kessler:That is the only major area where she has a different view, according to her friends. No two people think exactly alike.
Lopez: Is it the sense of folks you talk to that the president would be more strident on say abortion if she weren't moderating him or is he simply his own policy man?
Kessler:No, contrary to the caricatures, Bush is not an ideologue. While he may not agree with them, he is tolerant of different views and lifestyles. We saw that when former aide Doug Wead made public secretly recorded phone conversations he had had with Bush during the first presidential campaign. The tapes revealed Bush in unguarded moments to be remarkably like the public Bush. Saying evangelicals wanted him to attack gays, Bush said on the tapes, "I'm not going to kick gays, because I'm a sinner. How can I differentiate sin?"
The book describes what happened when Peter Akwai, a Yale classmate from Hawaii who had a sex change operation, introduced himself to Bush at the Yale reunion the president held at the White House in May 2003. Leilani Akwai, as he now calls himself, said to Bush, "Hello, George, I guess the last time we spoke to each other, I was still living as a man," Bush looked him in the eye and, with a slight suggestion of a conspiratorial wink, smiled.
"He grasped my hand firmly and said, 'And now you're you!'" Akwai told me.
Kessler: Was Hillary Clinton's chef too elite/French for Laura Bush?
Kessler: Now you're getting to the important questions!
On many occasions, Laura wants elegant food, but she also wanted a chef who understood how to make comfort food. The menu at Café Deluxe, one of her favorite lunch spots, includes meatloaf and roasted lamb shank as well as steak with French fries, lump crab cake, and pan roasted shrimp and scallops.
Laura's friend and sorority sister Anne Stewart remembered when Walter Scheib III, Hillary's pick as White House chef, faxed to Laura at the ranch a proposed menu for a White House dinner with some good ol' boys from East Texas.
"Look at this menu," the First Lady said. "It's a mélange of wild mushrooms and organic flowers. How do I tell him I want grits? Pretty soon you don't know what you're eating."
Friends noticed that no matter what cuisine was served, the food was always julienned and presented in a pyramid.
"From day one, she wanted to have her own person as chef," said Taylor Ensenat, a friend of Laura's who is married to Bush's friend from Yale Donald Ensenat, the chief of protocol at the State Department. "He only wanted to do French food. When they eat by themselves, they get tired of having a production made of every meal. They wanted a simple meal, and it never was."
Lopez: What does Laura think of the Clintons?
Kessler:Both Laura and the president recognize the many failings of the Clintons, including the fact that they were nasty to the White House residence staff and Secret Service agents. Laura was quietly dismayed at the condition of the White House. Not only were carpets and furnishings fraying and in disrepair in the West Wing and public areas, the Oval Office was done in loud, gaudy colors red, blue, and gold. The Lincoln Bedroom looked worn because it hadn't been decorated in so long. The East Wing was cut up into small offices and had exposed electrical conduits. Many of the furnishings looked dated.
Despite those opinions, neither Bushes badmouth anyone. When Teresa Heinz Kerry who now calls herself Teresa Heinz made her nasty crack that she didn't think Laura had ever had a job, the twins were outraged.
"You know, Mom, she put down every woman who raised their children," Jenna said at the dinner table in the residence. "She was saying that's not a real job. That was what was so bad about it. Not that she forgot you had a teaching job, but that she was putting down raising children."
But, just as she had said publicly, Laura talked about how easy it was for words to be twisted and taken out of context during high-pressure interviews. In fact, Teresa's interview was a tape-recorded Q and A with a reporter from USA Today. And not only had Laura had a real job, she would go in on her own time on Saturdays to help black children who were having trouble reading, according to Jimmy McCarroll, Laura's boyfriend at the time.
Laura is savvy and fully recognized what kind of a person Teresa was. But very much like her mother Jenna Welch, she chooses to look at life in a positive way. In the twenty years she known her, Laura's mother has never had a bad word to say about anyone except when the press was beating up on the twins, her friend Kathy Robbins told me.
"It's how she chooses to view the world and the people around her," Robbins said.
And so I see this book as sort of a self-help book on life and confronting its challenges. How do you stay as grounded as the Bushes do and impervious to vicious attacks by critics and the media? A lot of it goes back to their faith. Both keep devotional materials with spiritual affirmations at their bedside.
"Part of what faith is is believing in God to make you humble," said Laura's friend the Reverend Kathleene Card, a United Methodist minister who is married to Andy Card. "Understanding that it's not all about you. Those two understand that it's not all about them. They have good healthy egos, but they know it's so much larger than them."
Lopez:How did the White House Correspondents Dinner comedy routine come about?
Kessler:The media said Bush put his wife up to doing the routine to help him in the polls. In fact, the decision was a lot less Machiavellian. It went back to a conversation near the end of January 2005 between Laura's press secretary Gordon Johndroe and Dan Bartlett, who had just been promoted to presidential counselor.
"Dan and I were shooting the breeze, and he said he had agreed to the president giving speeches at the Gridiron Club, Alfalfa Club, Radio-Television Correspondents Association, White House Correspondents Association, and White House News Photographers dinners," Johndroe said. "That's an awful lot of speeches, which all have to be funny. So the president came up with the idea of Laura doing one of them and had already asked her."
When Johndroe talked with Laura about it, she was less than eager but said she guessed she could do the Radio and TV dinner. That dinner was to be on a Wednesday and was not as prominent as the White House Correspondents dinner.
"She agreed to do the dinner on April 6," Johndroe said. "But then Pope John II died on April 2. Dick Cheney went instead. So she and the president rolled over her talk to the White House Correspondents dinner on April 30."
Landon Parvin had already written a speech for Laura for the Radio and TV dinner, so she delivered it to the White House Correspondents. Cheney was left with few funny lines and devoted most of his speech to a tribute to the pope.
Kessler:Laura occasionally sneaks a cigarette with friends. In 1994 and 1995, she totally quit a lifelong smoking habit. When asked by the media, she would honestly say that it was "difficult" to quit. But after 1995, Laura went back to bumming cigarettes from friends, though never in front of George or her staff. At the White House, she might step outside on the Truman Balcony to take a few puffs. At the ranch, she might occasionally light up on the porch.
"She is a stress smoker," said her friend Anne Stewart. "She still bums a cigarette."
"If she is sitting around with some friends and they are smoking, she may smoke," longtime Bush friend Dr. Charles Younger, an orthopedic surgeon, said. "She wouldn't tell you she never does it, but it's not an image she would like to promote as a healthy habit from the First Lady who is supposed to be perfect."
Kessler: And she had breakfast in jail?
Lopez: During spring break in their senior year at Southern Methodist University, Laura and three sorority sisters drove to Florida to take a three-day cruise to the Bahamas. They were passing through Selma, Alabama then a hotbed of racial confrontation and violence when their car broke down.
"It was 6:30 a.m.," Janet Heyne, one of the sorority sisters, recalled, "and we were looking for a place to have breakfast while our car was in the shop. The chief of police and the sheriff drove up and said we were walking around in a bad neighborhood. They said to get in the squad car, and they would take us to a good place for breakfast. The sheriff radioed ahead to the jail."
"We're bringing four prisoners in," the sheriff said. "Have breakfast ready for them when we arrive."
"So the four of us had breakfast in jail," Heyne said.
Lopez: What about Kitty Kelley's claim in her book "The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty" that Laura was "known in her college days [at Southern Methodist University] as a go-to girl for dime bags of marijuana"?
Kessler:The charge provoked uproarious laughter among Laura's friends from SMU.
"If she was the go-to, I missed that," Pamela Nelson, Laura's friend and Theta Kappa Alpha sorority sister said. "I was there. She was the go-to for a lot of things that were uplifting."
Kelley attributed the claim to Robert Nash, identified as an Austin public relations executive who was a friend of "many" in Laura's SMU class. Nash later said that he did not know any of Laura's SMU classmates but merely told Kelley he had heard a rumor about Laura selling dope. In fact, Laura knew so little about drugs that when she was discussing Kelley's charge with Gordon Johndroe, her press secretary in the White House, she mistakenly said Kelley had accused her of selling "dime boxes" of marijuana, Kessler writes.
Kelley also claimed that after Laura and George married, they would visit Jane Purucker Clarke, another one of Laura's sorority sisters, and her boyfriend Sanford "Sandy" Koufax, the former baseball star, on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands and attend "heavy pot-smoking parties." But when the Bushes visited Jane Clarke on Tortola, "Jane had not met Koufax and was married to her husband John Clem Clarke, the artist," said Nelson.
"The Kitty Kelley story is a lie," Jane Clarke told me.
Lopez: What did you further learn about Bush White House operations during the course of writing the book that people don't know?
Lopez: What's the most surprising thing you learned about Laura Bush in the course of working on this book?
Kessler:Laura is a neatness freak. When under stress, she begins cleaning with Windex or Clorox.
"Laura is the Clorox Queen," said her close friend Nancy Weiss. "When she dusts her bookshelves, she takes the books out and sprays Formula 409 on the shelves. Clorox, Formula 409, and Windex are her three favorite substances."