I suppose it is indicative of the times that we live in that the marriage of President George W. Bush and the First Lady is the subject of a book less than two years after they moved into the White House. However, it is refreshing to look at a solid partnership like this one after the endless tales that were news fodder with the previous First Couple.
There are no great surprises in GEORGE AND LAURA. The drama of the administration immediately preceding this one --- mysteriously convenient deaths, defensive secrets transferred to enemies of this country, the clandestine rendezvous with interns on the Presidential Seal --- is gone. George and Laura Bush are...boring. The most interesting tidbit in GEORGE AND LAURA is that George, during his misspent youth, served as a dinner escort for...Tricia Nixon.
Sure there was tragedy in both of their pasts --- the death of his sister and the accidental death of her friend, but none of this is news to most readers. And yes, the background on each of their families that opens the book succinctly fills in gaps for anyone who has not studied their world, but none of what we read is earth-shattering revelation.
To his credit, Andersen tries to liven things up; the tales told in GEORGE AND LAURA would be far less interesting in the hands of a lesser writer. But there's not much in the way of explosions, karate, and ripped bodices here. Yes the First Couple has trouble with their teenage daughters, but to anyone with a teenager in the house, this is hardly novel. George is an alcoholic, in recovery some 15 years now. His wayward youth is recounted in some detail, and it is impossible to read about his behavior in his younger days without noting that the immediate past president behaved in a similar manner. The difference between the two is that 42 never stopped. W's wild days --- the drinking, the wenching, the carousing --- are over. His predilection toward a well-turned ankle disappeared upon his engagement to Laura; his drinking stopped a few years after their marriage.
It may be politically incorrect to note that women, in general, have a civilizing effect on men, but the thrust of GEORGE AND LAURA is that in the case of the President and the First Lady it is undeniably true. However, to me, Andersen does not really give W enough credit for the cessation of his destructive behavior. You cannot effectively stop such behavior for someone; you have to do it for yourself. But Andersen's account certainly demonstrates his penultimate point, which is that Laura gave the President ample reason to reform.
Andersen, to his credit, subtly drives home that the predictability of the Bushes relationship is a good thing. The lack of high drama in their relationship to each other is matched by their quiet passion, their mutual love and, of equal importance, their respect for each other. The First Lady is strong enough to unconditionally support the President, even when she strongly disagrees with him; this gives him room to do what he does best, which is the job he was elected to do. As Andersen so brilliantly and succinctly concludes, it is in their very ordinariness that they have proven themselves to be extraordinary. It is a standard, and an example, to strive for.
The bonds in their relationship gave them strength as this presidency was tested by fire within its first nine months, and surpassed even unreasonable expectations. There are those who have suggested that Bush was transformed by monumental, monstrous tragedy from an inept figure to a strong leader. What this theory ignores is that the magnitude of the attack on September 11th was such that it did not leave room for a transformation; those effected either had the right stuff to rise to the occasion or they did not. Bush, by his actions, demonstrated and continues to demonstrate that he has it. And to some extent GEORGE AND LAURA explains why.
If there is a disappointment with GEORGE AND LAURA, it is that many of Christopher Andersen's journalistic sources are known to be hostile to the President. The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Time, and other sourced periodicals have been uniformly, if predictably, anti-Bush since his nomination by the Republican Party. When Andersen quotes a columnist he quotes Molly Ivins, whose unrelenting hostility toward all matters Bush often approaches the level of incoherence. If there is a balance here, it is that Andersen is an obvious fan of Laura Bush; the thinly veiled thread that runs through GEORGE AND LAURA is his conclusion that Laura is the great woman behind the President.
As Andersen points out, Laura Bush does not consider being First Lady tantamount to having been elected co-president. She leaves him room to be great, while providing him with the additional incentive to do so. She coaxes, prods and helps him to refine his weaknesses --- his dress, his occasional tendency toward inappropriate goofiness, his much-reported malapropisms --- while at the same time adding to his considerable strengths in the areas of leadership, integrity and courage. This marriage is a partnership that makes both people stronger for its own strength. And their story is one that a lot of Americans can take stock in --- and feel good about leadership and values again.
--- Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub