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Laura Bush to W.: Don't beat up on gays. Plus she reports presidential poisoning, foreign policy goof (book excerpts)

April 28, 2010 |  9:09 am

Presdient Bush and First Lady Laura Bush at the 2005 inaugural ball by Paul Richards:AFP:Getty Images

Former First Lady Laura Bush, tactful and discreet during George W. Bush's eight-year presidency, has a lot to say. Tuesday, with publication of her memoir, "Spoken From the Heart," she does. And thanks to the New York Times and Politico, who found early copies, we can share them.

When she was in high school, Laura Welch hit a car after running a stop sign. Bush's confessions about her guilt -- and shaken faith -- after the driver of the car she hit died are gripping and evocative.

In those awful seconds, the car door must have been flung open by the impact and my body rose in the air until gravity took over and I was pulled, hard and fast, back to earth. The whole time, I was praying that the person in the other car was alive. In my mind, I was calling "Please, God. Please, God. Please, God," over and over and over again.

Her assertion that the U.S. presidential party attending the 2007 G-8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, might have been poisoned is also eyebrow-raising.

I arrived and began my events, but by the afternoon of [June] seventh, I could barely stand up. Over the next day nearly a dozen members of our delegation were stricken, even George, who started to feel sick during an early morning staff briefing. … [O]ne of our military aides had difficulty walking and a White House staffer lost all hearing in one ear. Exceedingly alarmed, the Secret Service went on full alert, combing the resort for potential poisons. ...  The overriding fear was that terrorists had gotten control of a dangerous substance and planted it at the resort. ... [O]ur military aide's gait has never returned to normal, nor has our senior staffer regained full hearing in that ear. The most concrete conclusion any doctors could reach was that we contracted a virus.

But the most astonishing passage to me is that involving the president and....

... gays. In 2004,the Bush White House used gay marriage as a wedge issue to win reelection. Concerned that evangelical conservatives might stay home, political guru Karl Rove capitalized on the controversy to position Bush as a staunch opponent of gay marriage and all but invited the Log Cabin Republicans to leave the Republican Party.

But in her book, Laura Bush acts as though she had no idea that the White House had been actively involved in this orchestration of an issue, describing her surprise that the issue came to dominate the campaign.

In 2004 the social question that animated the campaign was gay marriage. Before the election season had unfolded, I had talked to George about not making gay marriage a significant issue. We have, I reminded him, a number of close friends who are gay or whose children are gay. But at that moment I could never have imagined what path this issue would take and where it would lead.

Later she blames the media for making Mary Cheney's private life an issue -- even though his support for his daughter put Vice President Dick Cheney at odds with the Republican Party's position on gay marriage. In fact, she turns this complaint into a global verdict on how the media treats candidates' children.

When Bill and Hillary Clinton entered the White House, Saturday Night Live debuted a few particularly cruel skits aimed at their then twelve-year-old daughter, Chelsea. The Clintons took a hard line, and the press was shamed into leaving Chelsea alone. The press did largely the same for Barbara and Jenna, although reporters from the tabloids and from more mainstream publications frequently called their friends, trying to entice them to talk about the girls. None ever did. But a postscript to the 2004 campaign was that it changed, perhaps irrevocably, how the families, especially the children, of national candidates are treated. The strategy of making Mary Cheney’s private life an issue failed with the voters in November of 2004. But in the years since, it has become acceptable to mock candidates and their families, and other elected officeholders, in highly personal ways; David Letterman feels free to ridicule Sarah Palin’s teenager daughters, and the audience laughs. That is the legacy of the 2004 campaign.

All well and good, but when it comes to Mary Cheney, gay marriage and the 2004 election, maybe she should check with Rove, who acknowledges in his own memoir that he used the issue to effect. Apparently, exploiting gays to win reelection was less a case of media excess than yet another example of how George W. Bush ignored his wife's able advice and instead played gutter ball.

As for that State Department (or maybe it was National Security Council's fault) mistake, it was embarrassing.

On her first solo trip to the Middle East in the spring of 2005, Mrs. Bush describes “a series of landmines”:

For a first lady, there are moments of maximum political controversy, and they often strike without warning. Mine was to come, just after … I arrived at the Ittihadiyya Palace on the outskirts of Cairo to call on Suzanne Mubarak, first lady of Egypt. … I had arrived two days before a nationwide referendum on future presidential elections. I had known that elections were scheduled, but in weeks of staff meetings and in my National Security Council briefing for the trip, no one had mentioned that my visit would be so close to the referendum vote. Egypt is an important U.S. ally, but it also jails political opponents. I had walked, unprepared, into a potential minefield. In retrospect, it was probably one of the worst possible times for me to be in Egypt. Right away the Egyptian and American press asked me about the upcoming vote. And while I had reams of official talking points on educational programs and compliments about cultural sites … no one had thought to include a detailed briefing paper on current political issues in the country. I answered that holding elections was a ‘bold step’ toward democracy, but both the referendum and the actual presidential elections that followed were later criticized as insufficiently democratic for not allowing a full slate of opposition candidates to participate. Days after I left, protesters against the May referendum were beaten in the streets.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: 2005 inaugural ball. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

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