Laura Welch Bush is no Frances Folsom Cleveland, but she probably edges out Rosalynn for Hottest First Lady since Jackie. Laura has almond-shaped eyes, not-bad cheekbones, one damn proud bosom, and a less starchy coif than we’re used to on GOP consorts, though she may accept too many fashion tips from her mother-in-law, a woman currently running somewhat off the pace in the HFL competition. In the meantime, a couple of footnotes: 1) Nancy Reagan gives Jackie some stiff competition for all-time HFL if Ron entered politics 20 years earlier; 2) The HFL Hall of Fame complex, designed by Zaha Hadid, will break ground in Canton, Mich., in early 2009.
That Laura Bush, though! I mean, this is the girl who grew up on Humble Avenue (after the petroleum company, granted, not as any testament to humility) in Midland, Texas, and who lately has been standing by her man and his values while managing to hover ever so ladylike above the political fray. MS in library science, for gosh sake, though a mother first, darn it, at least when she has half a minute to glance up from her burgeoning stacks of biomedical research data. Medicine, social issues, Dewey decimal number 362.1; bioethics, 174.2; Bible, 220. You go, girl! Plus she whipped that bad boy into shape when he got out of line back in the day, did she not—all that drinking and driving and lady-killing!—with just a little help from the Lord and said mother-in-law, in roughly that order. If George even thinks about letting some hussy show him her thong—well, girlfriend, he’s history. As Pappy says, “Nah gah happen.”
A sad-faced emoticon here: Laura Welch accidentally, um, killed one of her high school classmates—some say he’d been her boyfriend, others that she’d wanted him to be—by running a stop sign two days after her 17th birthday. His name was Michael Douglas. They both went to Robert E. Lee High School in Midland. Mike, like many boys his age, liked to tool around town flying a Confederate flag from his Jeep to honor his alma mater’s namesake, though on the night he died he was soberly driving his parents’ ‘62 Corvair. He was a football and track star, looked up to not just for his athletic prowess but for his personality and intelligence. Plus he was funny, which helped him get nominated as the school’s most popular boy while a junior, an honor that almost always went to a senior. Every Lee girl adored him.
The accident happened just after 8 p.m. on November 6, 1963, a couple of weeks before John Kennedy was assassinated over in Dallas. Laura was driving her daddy’s Chevy, heading east on Farm Road 868 with her friend Judy Dykes, on their way to a rare school-night party. They were probably gabbing away about the party or football or what was on the radio, not drinking till they arrived but already sharing a cigarette, and Laura never saw the stop sign. Both vehicles were doing about 50. Michael was thrown through the windshield of the Corvair and pronounced DOA at Midland Memorial Hospital.
In his hilarious but terrifying short story “Autoclysms,” the poet Michael Anania captures definitively the innocent recklessness of teenagers with their first set of wheels and the carnage that often results:
[S]o many dead or damaged, the almost endless stretch of shattered glass and bent metal, bodies bent and broken, Meatball hung like loose newspaper against a barbed-wire fence, Linda facedown in the sumpwater in the ditch, Darlene’s unmarked body at the edge of a cornfield, her head severed by a telephone pole guide wire found in a furrow at first light, the girl in the Golden Hawk kissing her breath away on that memorial cigarette. (Red Menace. p. 139)
But all Judy Dykes and Laura Welch got were some bruises and scrapes. No charges were filed, not even a ticket was written.
“Certainly, as a parent, you have another perspective on a tragic accident like that,” Mrs. Bush told a reporter four decades after her autoclysm. “You are aware at the time, but you don’t know the true implications until you have your own children.” She doesn’t like to speak about it publicly, but during an interview with Oprah magazine, she did say, “I grieved a lot. It was a horrible, horrible tragedy. It’s a terrible feeling to be responsible for an accident. And it was horrible for all of us to lose him, especially since he was so young. But at some point I had to accept that death is a part of life, and as tragic as losing Mike was, there was nothing anyone could do to change that… It was a comeuppance. At that age, you think you’re immortal, invincible. You never expect to lose anybody you love when you’re so young. For all of us, it was a shock. It was a sign of the preciousness of life and how fleeting it can be.”
Whoever helped edit the speech must have been counting on voters to fail to understand that this was like saying Grover Cleveland didn’t sign the Kyoto Accord. Mrs. Bush routinely speaks in public on a number of life-and-death issues. Just before she steps to the podium, I imagine she catches herself thinking of Mike Douglas, if only for a second or two. I imagine that as she’s gotten older and spent more time married to George, the accident sometimes reminds her of that passage in Joyce’s “The Dead,” when the middle-aged Gretta Conroy can’t get the first young man she fell for, Michael Furey, out of her mind, even long after she’d married Gabriel Conroy and they have children together and are living in Dublin. But it was Michael, already burning with fever, who’d risked catching his death in the rain and cold on the west coast of Ireland when both of them were young, endangering his life just to sing for her, to let her know how much she meant to him. Gabriel was an excellent father and husband, a pillar of the community and all, but Michael was the first boy who loved her.
And yet, as Laura romantically put it just before that year’s Republican Convention, her husband “is the only president to ever authorize federal funding for embryonic stem cell research,” proudly adding that “few people know” this. Karen Hughes or Karl Rove or whoever helped edit the speech must have been counting on voters to fail to understand that this was like saying Grover Cleveland didn’t sign the Kyoto Accord. The relevant and undisputed fact is that Mrs. Bush’s husband is the only president to ever authorize federal rules against embryonic stem cell research.
Ignoring that inconvenient detail once again, this time in a speech she gave in the swing state of Pennsylvania, Mrs. Bush attempted to neutralize Nancy Reagan’s potent support of embryonic stem cell research after Mr. Reagan had disappeared into the abyss of end-stage Alzheimer’s. “It really isn’t fair to people who are watching a loved one suffer” to overstate the promise of embryonic stem cells, Laura scolded. “We don’t know that embryonic stem cell research will provide cures for anything.” Now, unless she and her husband have been keeping up with the literature, disinterestedly poring over the vital bulletins from dozens of far-flung labs getting posted every day, this is an example, I’m sorry to have to say, of First Lady 43 talking out of her ass about number 40.
The most promising protocol to cure Alzheimer’s, was being criminalized by her husband as she spoke. Her father had been 80 when he was diagnosed, with zero chance that embryonic stem cell research could ever make a difference for him. “I know how hard it is to lose someone to Alzheimer’s disease,” Mrs. Bush declared in another speech. “I lost my father seven years ago, so this subject is never far from my heart… My father was 80 when he was diagnosed with this disease. This was a difficult time for my family, especially for my mother, who saw her husband slipping away bit by bit every day. In many ways we were blessed.” Laura would never have thought to say “rich,” the more accurate word, but no matter. It makes just about the same difference in Midland and Washington, or anywhere high-end health care is available to those who can afford it. “My mother was able to care for my father at home and she had caretakers to help. But she was still the one who bore the greatest responsibility for his care.” She meant that her mother wrote the checks and supervised the help, although that didn’t make her mother’s hands-on or executive devotion one iota less genuine. Even so, ridiculously wealthy and pathologically poor Americans are two sides of the same health-care coin. Our highest-end medicine is as good as it gets, but 47 million Americans have no health insurance whatever. Since Mr. Bush took office, the number has climbed by more than 5 million. Aside from South Africa, we’re the only developed country not offering universal health coverage. We clearly have the ratios wrong, since we spend more than anyone on health care per capita—around $1.8 trillion in 2004, 15 percent of our gross domestic product, as opposed to 10 percent or less for other developed countries—yet we rank 32nd among these countries in key measures like infant mortality, with double the rate of Sweden’s, for example; we also have substantially lower life expectancy than other first-world countries. And I seem to recall that when Bill and Hillary Clinton tried to do something constructive and fair-minded about this, they were treated as viciously as any politicians in memory.
Where was I? Oh right, Mrs. Bush was speaking about Alzheimer’s, coming up on the really hard part of her speech: “We are making progress against this disease every day. A new generation of drugs is under review, and more are in development.” She paused, and a few in the audience clapped; the rest watched intently. The most promising protocol to cure this disease was being criminalized by her husband as she spoke. Her father had been 80 when he was diagnosed, with zero chance that embryonic stem cell research could ever make a difference for him. Would his daughter be nearly so sanguine if the family hadn’t been able to afford such compassionate around-the-clock care? What if one of her daughters was diagnosed with a chronic and fatal disease, a disease she was told by thousands of credible sources might be cured via cell research? What if the cure was developed in another country, and she had to get on a plane and violate Sections 302c (1) and (2) of the Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2003, which Kansas Senator Sam Brownback has proposed to outlaw somatic cell nuclear transfer, making it punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $10 million fine? It would also outlaw treatments developed in other countries using SCNT, making such medical treatment punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine. It’s this particular wrinkle in the Bush embryonic stem cell policy that gives it the stench of the witch doctor. Taken as a whole, the Bush position is one of the most unenlightened ideas, with the most negative and far-reaching human consequences, ever taken by an American president.
Yet 10 years from now, if a member of their family needed such treatment, passports might get revoked, white plastic handcuffs fastened on virginal wrists, even though the million-dollar fines wouldn’t be a problem. They’d hug their sick child, gas up a Bombardier Skyjet, and draft a new flight plan. Hasta la vista, America!
As a way to help deal with her cancer 30 years before it finally killed her, Susan Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor, perhaps her best book. Only 88 pages, it vividly demonstrates the punitive ways our culture responds to people who simply get sick. “Illness is the night-side of life,” it begins, “a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
As I said: Even for the Bush family, visas might be denied and Secret Service details withdrawn, at least for a spell. Documents would need to be forged, but no matter. They’d go. It’s not even hard to imagine them elbowing, or more likely bribing, their way to the front of the line at the clinic.
I also have faith that Laura would readily do the hard time to prolong the life of Jenna or Barbara. A comeuppance, she’ll call it, drawling as innocently as a young virgin autosodomized by the horns of her own chastity. “Yes! Yes, I did it!” No tears, though. Blushing hot pink, she’ll throw herself upon the court’s mercy. “I need to be p-punished, Your Honor!”