A novel take on political life

Reading: To understand Laura Bush's love of books is to know the next first lady, friends say.

January 16, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - During the grueling, often trying months of the presidential race, Laura Bush always had a refuge. The former librarian who tamed George W. Bush would leave the campaign trail and head home to Austin, Texas, to her book group, looking for peace of mind in the written word.

To know the future first lady, her friends say, one must understand her relationship to books. While her husband battles a perception that he is an intellectual goof-off, the woman who arranged the shelves in their bedroom according to the Dewey Decimal System (and who once joked that her husband's idea of a "bibliography" was a biography of the person who wrote the Bible) has used her public identity to elevate reading and to seek out the company of writers.

In Texas, she's been the host to writers at the governor's mansion and invited them to her book group of well-heeled Austin women. Often she would be reading their work before the campaign plane's wheels were up.

In Washington, her first official event as the next first lady will be Friday's celebration of American authors, and she has said she will work to promote literacy from the White House.

It is an echo of another first lady - her mother-in-law, who embraced literacy efforts from Washington. But this is more than Bush clan mimicry.

"I guess it's de rigueur for politicians' wives to have causes, but the love of literature is not an external cause to her - it is essential to her," says Texas novelist Laura Furman, author of "Ordinary Paradise," a memoir about growing up with grief and mourning.

After the two met at the Texas Book Festival, an annual event Bush organized five years ago that has grown into the state's largest gathering of its authors, Furman, sent Bush the list of the four other novels and short-story collections she had written, thinking she was doing so as a courtesy and that Bush would never bother opening them. But Bush wrote back.

"She'd read all of them," says Furman. "The habit of reading as a comfort and as a nurturing activity seems completely natural to her, completely one with her. But it's more than that. When you're young, you read to find yourself. When you're older, you read to find out about the rest of the world. And I think that's what she does."

Almost every month, including during the post-election turmoil of late fall, Bush made a point of attending her book group, a collection of about a dozen women - many of whom appear in Austin's society pages and most of whom are avid readers, according to the writers who have discussed their works with them.

Over soup and salad lunches, amid a fair amount of gossip between old friends, the women dig into their monthly selections: Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, Marcel Proust were on last year's list. The group favors books by or about Texans, many at Bush's request.

"It's an intellectual interest with Laura," says Tracy Curtis, who for the past four years has belonged to the group, which Bush joined shortly after her husband became governor in 1994.

"Laura's interested in all aspects of writing," Curtis says. "She's interested in the quality of the writing, she's interested in disseminating the writing to the population, she's interested in writers themselves, she's interested in the way books feel - the book design, the type of paper. It's just a real deep and broad interest for her."

The group has read award-winning Texas authors John Phillip Santos, Stephen Harrigan and Edwin Shrake. Last year, the women asked Ricardo Ainslie whether they could read the first chapters of his unpublished nonfiction work, "Something to Cheer," about the racial tensions that grew out of the unwanted pregnancies of four high-school cheerleaders in a small Texas town. He sent them draft chapters and came to lunch to hear their suggestions. Bush, 54, campaigned as a traditional political spouse, but her literary taste at times veers toward fare unlikely to make any GOP family-friendly book list. Recently, she has been urging her friends to read Abraham Verghese, an Indian-born doctor who wrote "My Own Country," an emotional account of treating AIDS patients in the American South, and "The Tennis Partner," a book about male bonding and the spiraling decline of a young cocaine addict in El Paso.

In the left-leaning Austin literary crowd, there's an implicit understanding that politics are set aside in relationships with Bush. For her part, some novelists say, Bush seems to enjoy slipping from her image-conscious political realm into theirs.

Lee Byrd, a short-story writer, remembers hiking with Bush along Austin's Barton Creek four years ago when the two decided to jump into the water - fully clothed - and paddle around. The panic-stricken trooper guarding Bush scrambled through the underbrush to keep an eye on her as the swift current carried her downstream, Byrd recalls, but Bush was having too much fun to hurry up and climb out.

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