Laura Bush Is No Betty Ford

The publication today of the former first lady's memoir is a poignant reminder that there was a time when presidents' wives spoke their minds. Just not since the 1970s, argues Bush aide Matt Latimer.

With great respect to the beloved Betty White—America’s new best friend—there’s another Betty due for her second curtain call. Oddly enough, it was shortly after I started reading Laura Bush’s memoir, Spoken From the Heart, that my thoughts turned toward another first lady of the United States: Betty Ford.

Like all memoirs, Mrs. Bush’s book promises a “brave” story of “rare intimacy and candor” from one of our least well-known first ladies. We are offered a modest dose of that—from Mrs. Bush’s discussion of the accident in which she killed a fellow classmate to her early discomfort with her mother-in-law, whose tart tongue found a way to insult every one of Laura’s friends, to her impression of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, which comes dangerously close to actual dislike. But not a single line within its 432 pages rivals the cyclone of opinions and ideas that Betty Ford unleashed every day as first lady—sometimes without being asked.

I used to watch her standing in receiving lines. Her face always had the same, serene expression. Was she happy? Was she bored? Was she pondering a new offensive in Afghanistan?

Serving in the White House with her mild-mannered husband, Mrs. Ford wore mood rings, danced in the East Room until late into the evening, and even had her own CB handle (“First Mama”). For her, no issue was too taboo to tackle—abortion, adultery, marijuana use, breast cancer, the Equal Rights Amendment, alcoholism. This was in the mid-1970s, long before Jerry Springer could merge those issues into a single episode. (“My addict wife cheated on me while I had cancer—and now she wants an abortion.”)

Ann Louise Bardach: Behind Laura Bush's Car CrashSpeed Read Laura Bush's MemoirMrs. Ford’s candor—she was one of the few who did that overused word justice—helped millions of people overcome the trauma of addiction and disease. It also led her to stratospheric approval ratings, to the point that Republicans were wearing buttons reading, “Vote for Betty’s husband.” Mrs. Ford was said to have demolished the idea that the president’s wife was an opinion-less, passive helpmate. And she did—for about 15 minutes. Then her successor, Rosalyn Carter, started attending Cabinet meetings. Folks didn’t cotton to that. From then on, even the most powerful and opinionated first ladies—like Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton—were forced back to their traditional role of aiding their husbands with guile and subterfuge, the Madames Defarge of the East Wing. Even the supposedly outspoken Michelle Obama reserves her toughest talk for childhood obesity.

How wonderful it would have been for the thoughtful and determined Laura Bush to have broken that mold. Though I didn’t know the first lady well when I worked in the Bush White House, by all accounts she had a Betty Ford streak in her. I used to watch her standing in receiving lines or just behind her husband while he gave a speech. Her face always had the same, serene expression. Was she happy? Was she bored? Was she pondering a new offensive in Afghanistan? It was impossible to know.

Yet it was common knowledge that Mrs. Bush was a “moderating” influence on her husband. And that her opinions on social issues—such as gay marriage and abortion—were more liberal than his. In her memoir, she touches on both issues so gingerly as to be almost apologetic.

Around the West Wing, she and her staff worked hard to ensure she was treated seriously—to the point that few looked forward to the phrase, “This is from the first lady’s office.” By the president’s own admission, Mrs. Bush chastised him on his drinking and on what she felt were overly belligerent war speeches. She advocated strongly for an increase in federal aid for malaria, HIV/AIDS, and reconstruction after Katrina. She was an exacting editor of her own speeches, sometimes sending her remarks to the presidential speechwriting office because her own staff had not satisfied her. The most famous story in the White House was how meticulously she decorated the Oval Office, down to the large, bright oval rug. It was she who put the kibosh on moving back full-time to the ranch in Crawford when Bush’s presidency ended, in favor of a house in cosmopolitan Dallas.

None of this comes across in Mrs. Bush’s memoir. Instead readers are offered a rather routine defense of the administration’s most controversial policies—from the invasion of Iraq to the response to Katrina. There is no evidence that Mrs. Bush tried to influence her husband on a single thing. She tells us that the president spoke with her twice on 9/11—that she could tell he had been “transformed”—but she never tells us what he said. Reflecting Mrs. Bush’s famous disinterest in politics, there is little revealing about any of her husband’s historic political campaigns—not even the 2000 recount in Florida. Her father-in-law’s entire presidency is summarized in two pages (which, come to think of it, seems rather generous). She doesn’t even take credit for the Oval Office rug.

For a moment in the book we get a glimpse of the Laura Bush beneath her pleasant, unchanging smile. She tells a story about hosting a meal for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince in Crawford, Texas, and having to make herself scarce after the arrival ceremony. “Women did not travel with the crown prince,” she informs us, and we are left to discern that the president’s wife was not allowed in his company in her own house. Even though the Saudi practice clearly rankles her—“those were the customs in the prince’s part of the world”—she never comes right out and says so.

And so, as I read page after page of anecdotes without opinion, I thought of Betty Ford. We all know what she said about her disagreements with her husband—that she loved him, but she thought he was wrong. (He loved her too and he came across as stronger and more self-assured because of it.) Mrs. Ford would have politely told her critics to stow it, though she might have agreed with them on a thing or two. And that Saudi Prince? Well, Betty Ford might have sat right next to him at lunch. And since Saudi women endure driving restrictions in their country, Mrs. Ford might very well have offered the crown prince a tour of the ranch—with herself at the wheel.

Come to think of it—is it too late to get both Bettys together on this week’s Saturday Night Live? Then two tough ladies can show the world how it’s done.

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Matt Latimer is the author of The New York Times bestseller, Speech-Less: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.