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Byline: James Wolcott
First Lady Laura Bush has developed a Day-Glo gleam in her eyes that doesn't seem connected to an off switch, a beatific stare that never blinks no matter how much reality gets thrown at it. Less than halfway through President Bush's second term, his haggard face and salted hair bare the battle fatigue of misplaced optimism, a war gone bad, and eroding popularity; like so many of his predecessors, he has endured accelerated aging, drained of so much juice his head resembles a geological sample. Not Mrs. Bush. She looks the opposite of careworn-so smooth, unmussed, serenely composed, and coated against the elements that it's as if she has found a miracle cure to arrest time and sustain a peachy glow: the secret of Shangri-la. No wonder she has become the White House's favorite goodwill ambassador and gentle persuader: she is the only member of the administration who doesn't seem to be the bearer of bad vibes, killing the grass wherever she steps. Her sky-high approval numbers testify to the appeal of her soft-spoken positivity. But they also indicate that Laura Bush is perceived as an undivisive, non-abrasive, traditional First Lady-unlike Hillary Clinton, who couldn't (and can't) say boo without pundits and radio hosts whipping themselves into a windy dither. Two new books-Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady, by Ronald Kessler, and Laura's List: The First Lady's List of 57 Great Books for Families and Children, by Beverly Darnall-play up the nurturing side of the nation's mom in chief, her bountiful Oprahness. But just as Oprah left James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) strewn like a scarecrow across the floor, a scattering of straw, woe be unto him or her who blocks Laura's sunshine. Her pantsuits harden into pastel armor as she drives undeviatingly forward on her husband's and her own behalf, half woman, half tank, pure will. And it's Hillary whom she seems most determined to leave tread marks across.
Ronald Kessler's valentine to the First Lady is hailed by its publisher as "the only book to be written about Laura Bush with White House cooperation." But White House cooperation always amounts to managing the message, which in this instance means fobbing Kessler off with fluffball quotes and dubious factoids, then patting him on the head and ushering him back into the fog. (Part of what makes this biography readable is the rich alternative reality it presents.) As author of the fawning A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush, Kessler earned his loyalty badge as a stenographer who could be trusted with access and would be content with whatever was dropped into his trick-or-treat bag. Despite a thank-you list that totals nearly 150 names and includes major players such as Karl Rove, Condoleezza Rice, and Harriet Miers, his "Acknowledgments" section could have been called "Thanks for Nothing," considering the measly candy Kessler got, unless this is his idea of inside dope: "The new dog, Miss Beazley, was born on October 28 in the same New Jersey kennel as Barney. (Her father is Barney's half-brother.) Beazley, as Laura called her, was named after a dinosaur character in Oliver Butterworth's children's book The Enormous Egg." He's the enormous egg, capable of keeping a straight face as he passes along official word from the powder room that "Laura's contacts are not tinted. Nor, contrary to some reports, has she had plastic surgery or Botox treatments." I guess her eyes are just naturally going intergalactic.
As biography, Laura Bush re-traces the trail covered by previous histories of her life as if narrating a class trip. Familiar incidents are retold. The tragic car accident in high school when she ran a stop sign and killed a classmate who was driving the other car. Her early career as a teacher and librarian. Her meeting, dating, and marrying George Bush. His run for …