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Inside private world of Laura Bush

By Matthew Davis
BBC News, Washington

Laura Bush
Laura Bush's approval ratings eclipse her husband's

A new, authorised biography of Laura Bush opens up the private world of one of the most popular First Ladies in US history; detailing her daily routines, influence on her husband's policy and even her shock at the state in which the Clintons left the White House.

There has been a mixed critical reception to Ronald Kessler's biography of Mrs Bush, which is based on interviews with her closest friends as well as administration heavyweights like US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

One reviewer suggested that the First Lady would "chuckle over a portrayal of a her as a woman virtually without flaw".

Another said the former Washington Post reporter's co-operation from the White House amounted to little more than the administration "managing the message".

According to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice it was Laura's 'initiative and her idea to really fully and completely expose what the Taleban regime was doing to women'
Ronald Kessler

However Laura Bush - An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady seems destined to be a big seller, not least due to the popularity of the subject herself.

Even as she has ascended the heights of political fortune and increasingly spoken out on issues like Aids, education and the arts, Mrs Bush has kept the homespun manner that has endeared her to the US public.

While her husband struggles in the polls, she has the highest approval ratings of any First Lady since pollsters began asking the question.

'Broad influence'

During the last five years of the Bush presidency she has largely kept in the background.

Nancy and Ronald Reagan
Each First Lady has put her own stamp on the role

Yet Kessler's book suggests the former school teacher and librarian may have played a much greater role in shaping White House policy than previously acknowledged.

Mrs Bush, 59, has broad influence on her husband and his administration, and in some cases has suggested strategy, Kessler says.

"According to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice it was Laura's 'initiative and her idea to really fully and completely expose what the Taleban regime was doing to women'," he writes.

In the autumn of 2003, he says Mrs Bush vetoed the appointment of a "well-connected political appointee" who had been deceitful with the Bush administration.

Former White House chief-of-staff Andrew Card is quoted as saying: "In a small percentage of times she will be against the nominee.

"We try to ask her early enough in the process so it's not a rejection. Her view is then a suggestion."

In interviews ahead of the book's release, Kessler said Mrs Bush had a substantial behind-the-scenes influence.

"The Bush administration asks for her opinion, and for any suggestions that she might have, on possible appointments and on issues affecting a range of agencies dealing with subjects which she has committed herself to promoting, or in which she has a strong interest," he said.

Glamour and style

Although the role of First Lady has never been officially defined, her prominence makes her a role model and gives her the opportunity to exert influence privately and in public.

Not only were the carpets and furnishings fraying and in disrepair in the West Wing and public areas, the Oval Office was done in loud colours - red, blue and gold
Ronald Kessler

From the activism of Eleanor Roosevelt, the glamour and style of Jacqueline Kennedy or the candour of Betty Ford, each First Lady has put her own stamp on the role, some more controversially than others.

During eight years in the White House, Nancy Reagan was often criticised for being domineering.

Barbara Bush, wife of President George Bush senior, was publicly taciturn over any differences in opinion with her husband.

She famously warned her daughter-in-law not to criticise George W Bush's speeches after she once upset the future president so much he accidentally crashed his car.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, came to the White House having already staked out a successful career of her own.

She is now considered among the favourites to become the Democratic presidential candidate in 2008, raising the distant possibility of America seeing its first First Husband.

BBC Interview

Kessler's book paints a portrait of a First Lady less involved in politics than her predecessor, but more vocal than her mother-in-law.

Laura Bush
I watched people that I love very much in this job - my mother-in-law and my father-in-law - and I had a real idea of the weight of it, the weight of the job

Mrs Bush's high approval ratings - some 85% - are thought to be an asset to the president and in recent months she has adopted an increasingly prominent public profile.

Last week the First Lady was interviewed on CNN's Larry King show, where she highlighted a campaign to warn women of heart disease and also defended the president's policies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In a BBC interview last month, Mrs Bush told of the challenge of being First Lady in a country divided by the war in Iraq, and revealed that the "war on terror" had made her job more challenging than she ever anticipated.

She said: "I watched people that I love very much in this job - my mother-in-law and my father-in-law - and I had a real idea of the weight of it, the weight of the job.

"I remember during the Gulf War when President Bush, my husband's father, was president, and the very start of it when the body bags went over to Kuwait - and the whole worry of that, the whole gravity of that.

"The choices that a president makes, for instance, are so consequential, there are so many consequences - and so I knew that, even though that doesn't always help when you are in the midst of it yourself."

'White House looked dated'

Kessler covers the personal history that took Laura Bush from Midland Texas, to the "midst of it" at the White House.

The Clinton-era Oval office
Loud colours: The Clinton-era Oval office

This encompasses the tragic episode in which - aged 17 - she missed a stop sign and caused a fatal accident that left a best friend dead - and the revelation that the First Lady became pregnant with her twins, Jenna and Barbara, only after taking powerful fertility drugs.

But one of the most-reported sections of the book is a brief discussion of the White House furnishings.

Kessler says Mrs Bush was "quietly dismayed" by the state of the residence when Hillary Clinton took her on a tour in December 2000, just as the US Supreme Court ruled on the disputed election.

Mr Bush in the Oval Office
More muted: President Bush's Oval Office

"As a rule, First ladies confine their decorative touches to the residence and public portions of the White House, but the Bushes were appalled by the shabby condition of the West Wing, and Laura took charge of refurbishing that as well," he writes.

He adds: "Not only were the carpets and furnishings fraying and in disrepair in the West Wing and public areas, the Oval Office was done in loud colours - 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."

Laura Bush: An Intimate portrait of the First Lady, is published in the US by Doubleday Books, and is out now.



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Profile: Laura Bush
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