AFTER LAST week’s election debacle giving George W. Bush and his administration the ability to push through a compliant Congress their domestic right-wing "reforms" — ultra-conservative judicial appointments, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and a war on terrorism conducted at home and abroad without regard for domestic or international law — liberals are looking to anyone and everyone for signs of hope. Former vice-president Al Gore. Filmmaker Michael Moore. Even California congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. Of course, they’re not going to find it with these people. But here’s who will give them hope — and it’s the one person no one would ever associate with liberal goals: the first lady. It’s true. The person best situated to expose the corruption of the Bush regime as a money-obsessed, fascistic organization is hiding in plain sight.
To be sure, Laura Bush as fifth column-ist is a radical proposition. After all, she is just the first lady, and not a very feisty one at that. But the position of first lady — "It is a role, not a job," as Hillary Rodham Clinton famously quipped — is vital to every presidential administration, both in shaping its policies and in influencing how it is viewed by the media. This was obvious in the cases of Hillary Clinton (seen by many as the brains and the balls behind the man in the oral office) and Nancy Reagan (viewed as the ultimate Hollywood social climber who used national politics as a stepping stone to Vanity Fair covers).
But it was just as true of other administrations. Bess Truman provided congenial domestic ballast to her husband’s no-nonsense gruffness. Lady Bird Johnson’s Johnny Appleseed plans to plant trees and flowers across the nation detracted from her own considerable political power even as it softened her husband’s hard-ball politics on civil rights and Vietnam. Pat Nixon’s wifely steadfastness humanized Dick’s psychopathic, criminal deportment. Rosalynn Carter made Jimmy’s peanut-farmer demeanor palatable. Betty Ford offered us human pathos and tragedy as a counterweight to her husband’s emotional banality. Sometimes the power of the first lady is intentional — Bess Truman’s statements about her husband’s brusqueness, while given out in homespun colloquialisms, were highly crafted media spin. And sometimes it is accidental — it’s hard to imagine that Betty Ford ever really wanted to be spokesperson for those battling substance-abuse dependencies, a position in which she found herself. But across the board, first ladies and their actions are a vital part of an administration’s media presence and political clout. Or, as we may hope in the case of Laura Bush, its undoing.
SINCE SHE became first lady, Laura Bush has faced a series of challenges about how to define herself and her husband’s administration. The first challenge, of course, was how to explain why she, a librarian, was married to a man who speaks English as if he were still learning the language. The second challenge was how to be as unlike Hillary Clinton as possible. Hillary — whom the Republicans maligned throughout her husband’s two terms in office as a mixture of Satan, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Demi Moore’s character in Disclosure — was perceived as greedy for power, unscrupulous, amoral (so much so that she apparently chose to tolerate her husband’s philandering), and smart. Really smart. Mrs. Bush doesn’t seem to be power hungry, unscrupulous, or amoral. But, as we are beginning to see, she is smart. Very smart. (Which again raises questions about her partnership with a man who brags about having graduated from college with a C average.)
Indeed, beneath Bush’s mild, blandly friendly exterior lurks a mind that may be — dare we say it? — as devious as Hillary’s. Bush’s first-lady project — all first ladies need one, it’s a cross between public service and public relations — is the promotion of literature and reading. If we’re lucky, the successful implementation of Laura Bush’s national agenda will be the downfall of her husband’s administration.
It may appear as though Laura Bush is taking cues from her mother-in-law, Barbara "Rhymes with Rich" Bush, who talked about literacy (clearly, this was an effort that should have started at home, with her own children) while her husband prosecuted a war on ... Iraq. But she’s not. In a master stroke of triangulation that few observers appreciate, Bush is taking a page from Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Kennedy, of course, is revered for her efforts to bring culture and intellectual refinement to the White House. But while Jackie was obsessed with bringing European highbrows such as Pablo Casals, Igor Stravinsky, Rudolf Nureyev, AndrŽ Malraux, and Salvador Dali to gala White House functions — in a successful effort to connect US art and artists with broader international traditions — Laura Bush has taken a narrower, arguably more parochial tack in her bid for the mantle of culture queen, by focusing solely on literature.
Even before her husband’s inauguration, Bush claimed that her White House mandate was the realm of education and literature. In her earliest interviews, she proclaimed her love of literature. And in a July 2000 interview with the New York Times, Bush stated that her favorite book was "The Grand Inquisitor" chapter of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Eyebrows rose at the prospect of the little woman from Texas laying claim to such highbrow literature. After all, Bush’s public image up to this point was that of patient wife who forced her alcoholic husband to give up the drink. As it turned out, she was reading books by authors whose names her husband couldn’t even pronounce.
Since that time, Mrs. Bush has forged ahead full speed — but with a delicacy and comportment very unlike Hillary’s — to promote reading and literature across the country. She has devoted much of her time and public-speaking engagements to promoting American literature. During political junkets, she visits the homes of noted literary heroes: Louisa May Alcott in Massachusetts and Katherine Anne Porter in Texas, for example. And she recently organized a series of highly publicized literary conferences at the White House.
This seems like safe Jackie Kennedy territory and is no doubt intended to please everyone. But does it? Can this Republican first lady actually get away with promoting American literature in a White House that is noted not only for the near illiteracy of its leader, but also for its refusal to take seriously any support of the arts in the United States? There can be little doubt that most Republicans pay Laura Bush’s work small heed. After all, she has to do something, and promoting American literature is something that the likes of America-first advocates such as Senate minority (soon-to-be majority) leader Trent Lott and the odious Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice-president, can get behind.
But what is Laura Bush really doing? An October 6 story in the New York Times, titled THE FIRST LADY BUILDS A LITERARY ROOM OF HER OWN, gives us a peek. Over the past year, Bush has set up the first three White House conferences in her "Salute to America’s Authors" series, on Mark Twain, the Harlem Renaissance, and Western women writers. She has managed to nab important literary folks to speak, including David Levering Lewis, a prominent black historian whose biography of W.E.B. Du Bois won a Pulitzer Prize; Cambridge-based author Justin Kaplan, who penned a Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Mark Twain; and Ursula Smith and Linda Peavy, who are life partners and chroniclers of the lives of women in the Old West. More amazing is that most of these speakers are confirmed George W. haters (a fact that the Times article dwelled on at length).
Look at the topics and authors Bush is promoting. Mark Twain was a brilliant critic of US society — particularly those aspects of it fueled by money. His 1873 novel The Gilded Age, written with Charles Dudley Warner, is a sustained attack on corporate greed gone wild — a theme Twain featured prominently in his writings when he wasn’t railing against racism (which he loathed in all forms), Christianity (which he considered a bane of humanity), and human stupidity (which he never learned to endure).
The Harlem Renaissance was a glorious moment in US cultural history that brought modernism into the mainstream and gave African-Americans a loud public voice to which they’d never had access before. It was also a radical moment in which people of color called for a new and aggressive political identity that would challenge and transform the racist rule of the white majority. As for the panel on women writers of the West, it included speakers on the works of Willa Cather (a lesbian who wrote honestly about how westward expansion ruined the beauty of the country) and Edna Ferber (who wrote about the horrors of racism in Show Boat and about the enormous economic and psychological damage brought on by Big Oil money in Giant). The only featured author who can be deemed inoffensive from a culturally conservative point of view is Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the Little House on the Prairie series.
Regarding future seminar topics, Bush says she’s considering the memoirs of Lillian Hellman — a former Communist who told off the House Un-American Activities Committee. She’s also thinking of organizing events to discuss Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, and Truman Capote. These are all great American writers. But they are also all — to varying degrees — incredibly subversive. Dickinson wove her love of women delicately into obscure verse, but at the heart of her poetry is a black, even frightening, vision of the emotional deadness of America. Whitman not-so-delicately wove his love for boys and men throughout his poems as he celebrated a democracy that is best explored in casual sex and by venerating the male body. ("I sing the body electric" was more than just a metaphor for old Walt.) Faulkner was an incessant critic of American race relations and used racial metaphors to explore the moral vacuity at the center of US culture. And Truman Capote — not only a flagrant homosexual but also a keen observer and merciless appraiser of the American upper class (to which the Bushes belong) — used his outsider status to advance sarcastic, incisive critiques of American cultural life.