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SEXIST BEATDOWN: Through the Eyes of Laura Bush Edition

So, that Laura Bush. She seems like such a nice lady, am I right? With her sensible suits, and her motherly way of speaking, and her affection for the children, and so on, and so forth. She thinks reading and cookies are good! She thinks alcoholism and breast cancer are bad! She is totally fine with that abortion you’re getting, and also will be cool if you marry your girlfriend later!

Wait, WHAT?

Yes, it’s true! Laura Bush has some common sense in her head, it turns out! And she only waited for THE ENTIRETY OF HER HUSBAND’S POLITICAL CAREER, and as long as it took for her to crank out a memoir (including some work with the discreetly credited “Lyric Winik, who helped me put my story into words” — oh, Acknowledgement sections) to demonstrate it! Which is… um, “problematic?” Yes. Let’s just say “problematic,” and save the lengthy explications of how and why for the Atlantic Culture Channel, at this particular juncture.

But it is Friday afternoon, and that is the time when we discuss problems! With G-Chatter in Chief Amanda Hess of The Sexist, and First Lady GChatter Me, of Here! Behold, as we discuss the difference between being a woman and a Lady, outline the first of my many historical fiction projects (with dragons), rue the potential unintended consequences of marrying THE LEAST PRESIDENTIAL-SEEMING DUDE IN THE WORLD, and fixate on the portions of Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife that she must be so sick of people fixating on, my God.

king

ILLUSTRATION: So, this dude was very probably President James Buchanan’s boyfriend. His name was William Rufus King, he was Franklin Pierce’s Vice-President, and he died before Buchanan was elected. Which is sad. But before that, he lived with Buchanan,  and their relationship was publicly speculated upon and mocked by the press and other politicians (Andrew Jackson, in particular, was a real dick about it). Their correspondence was destroyed by relatives. We do have a letter from Buchanan, after King left for France for quite a long time, that reads, in part, “I am now ‘solitary and alone’, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them.” He speculates that he will have to marry some lady, one who will “not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.” But he never did! He never did marry a lady. He got his niece to do all the First Lady stuff. Buchanan was the first U.S. President to publish a memoir, mostly to insist that history would vindicate him for defending slavery, WHOOPS. And he was the only President not to have a Presidential wife. I thought Laura Bush would like that story!

SADY: HELLO! Sorry, I went out to buy cigarettes and coffee. Which are what I subsist on, at this sad point in my life.

AMANDA: That’s OK! I was confined for eight years in an ideological prison of my husband’s making.

SADY: I hear that can be difficult! Yet readily novelizable, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Who will do a weirdly precognitive job, actually! FULL CONFESSION: I read both “Spoken from the Heart,” the Hallmarkianly titled memoir of Laura Bush, and “American Wife,” the Curtis Sittenfeld novel-as-memoir-of-Laura-Bush, in a 24-hour time period. I may actually morph into Laura Bush at any moment now. SHE’S IN MY HEADDDDD.

AMANDA: OK I haven’t read either of them. But I have been watching videos of her public appearances in conjunction with her book release. And it’s been a really strange book tour for Laura, yeah? “I am forever haunted by the boy’s life I took in a traffic accident … also, gay people are fine.”

SADY: Haha, YEAH. Which, like: Sittenfeld actually predicted both of those things, in her (very good) book! Which ends with Maura Mush/”Alice Blackwell” taking a public — and shocking! — stand against her husband’s policies. Which creeped me the hell out, when I had striven to meet my deadline and turned in an article that was like, “but also, Laura Bush REALLY DOESN’T think gay people are fine,” and then saw the King interview and e-mailed my editor all “OH FUCK DON’T PUBLISH THAT OKAY.”

AMANDA: STOP THE PRESSES, LAURA BUSH NOW PUBLICLY DOES NOT HATE GAY PEOPLE.

SADY: But the thing is, this was sort of predictable. For years, she’s been making these really subtle pro-choice, pro-gay statements. But she waited until her husband was out of power to actually SAY this stuff.

AMANDA: Right. When he was president she was just like, “let me focus on my interest in librarianism for the next eight years.”

SADY: Right. “Books are good! Also, heart attacks are bad! Be nice to children! Such are my public positions!”

AMANDA: Meanwhile, Michelle Obama is focusing on her interest in ending childhood obesity. First ladies have been getting the least controversial issues possible lately.

SADY: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think people of our age are spoiled, because we grew up with Hillary. Who was actually, you know, interested in politics, and was portrayed as a demon succubus who controlled her husband via brain implant for that very reason. First Ladies in general are supposed to be like, the softer side of the most militarily equipped nation in the world. So they’re expected to take really feminized, feminine causes, like schooling and children and breast cancer and puppies and rainbows and sunshine and, I dunno, fighting the War on Inadequate Dinner Parties, or something.

AMANDA: Yeah. And I think that, as much as some people still cling to their irrational hatred of Hillary, the vitriol really reached his peak when she was First Lady. I think that some people are more comfortable just seeing a woman like her, as weird as this is, as Secretary of State than having to recognize that women like her are also mothers and wives. They didn’t want to see their America’s Number One Wife be a wife who was also, you know, a person. It really is a thankless job. If you’re the wife of a president, you have to devote your whole life to being his compliment, but you can’t be a compliment who is too independent or intellectually-minded, or too involved in the actual business of the presidency. You have to be a full-time compliment who is just available full-time to be … available full-time. To bake cookies and wear nice clothes and raise kids and smile a lot and make soft, feminine proclamations about soft, feminine social issues. If I were Laura Bush, I would have like brought a megaphone to Obama’s inauguration and been like, “Fuck this noise, gay people alright! Also abortions!” I don’t know how they can stand it.

SADY: Well, I mean: The thing is, Laura Bush reportedly didn’t even WANT her husband to be a politician in the first place. Let alone PRESIDENT. She was apparently pretty unhappy about it. And, you know, if I were cool with gay people and abortions, and my husband were George W. Bush, and he were like, “you know what I want to do? Be in a position to influence national policy on these matters,” I would be… “unhappy” is probably the mildest way you would put it. But the fact that she committed herself to this shit for eight years, even though for those eight years most of her statements were to the effect of, “I have no opinions. Anyone want a cookie? Because I bake those,” is, like… TROUBLING, to me.

AMANDA: It’s scary.

SADY: I mean, I could date someone if I thought their taste in music occasionally sucked. I could date someone if they wore unflattering jeans. I would have a PROBLEM dating someone if we disagreed on the issues of, like, Human Rights, and whether Humans who were gay and/or ladies deserved said Rights. That would probably be a dealbreaker! For me! Is all I am saying!

AMANDA: Or, to go further: That you disagree on issues of basic human rights, and that in order to remain in a relationship with this person you would have to recuse yourself of having any opinion on the matter and defer silently to your husband’s ass-backwards ideas.

SADY: Right. That’s the thing. Because Laura Bush was continually deployed, during her husband’s administration, as a PR tool. She gave a radio address that he was originally scheduled to make! She was sent out to calm people down! People just LIKED her more, and as the administration went on, they liked her more and him less (and less, and LESS) and now, they’re both writing memoirs, but hers goes out first. And it has the most nice-lady title in the history of the world. Spoken From the Heart! For Gods’ sakes! And, I mean, the thing is, she was actually in a position to talk about this for all this time, and didn’t. So now, even though she’s all, “so, anyway, 9/11 was really scary and also let’s not outlaw abortions,” I really question her decision not to utilize that influence at the time.

AMANDA: Hahaha. I mean, it was sort of always an open secret that Laura Bush was a democrat. And I actually wonder how much of that was part of the PR ruse. Like, “Look at this democratic woman submitting to my batshit ideas! You can do it too, America!” It added to her image as A Good Wife.

SADY: Hahaha. “Look, she’s not throwing herself off the White House balcony, and we probably even have SEX with each other, still!” Which: Can I tell you, in an unrelated note, I was sharing lines from and summaries of the sex scenes in “American Wife” with people all day long?

AMANDA: Oooh give me one!

SADY: People would be like, “so how’s your day going?” And I would be like, “the George W. Bush guy in ‘American Wife’ says the following line: ‘You’re this goddess with these amazing, luscious breasts.’” Also, we have, “how could he be an unscrupulous politician with such a cute little butt?” Which, like: EASILY, it turns out!

AMANDA: UG! BRAIN CLEANSE

SADY: It’s a really good book, though. There’s a scene of the Laura-Bushesque heroine self-Googling that will make you question your life. And also, some cunnilingus!

AMANDA: Good for Laura! Jesus Christ! You know she read that, too! Fuck, how depressing. I hope to never have to read a work of fiction speculating as to how I have sex with my husband. And for that reason, I will not marry a President.

SADY: Yeah. I kind of like how the novel tries to provide the answer to the question of “how does she put up with him?” And the answers are, (a) money, (b) lack of options, and (c) he gives really good head. I find that actually pretty relatable! However, I kind of find it unlikely that I myself would marry a President, for the above-stated reasons. No matter HOW luscious he thinks my breasts are. I think that there’s this whole routine of self-erasure that a lady is supposed to undergo, if her husband gets a case of the Presidents, that means she has to start being a woman and start being a Lady. The First Lady, in fact! And I cannot see me ever doing that. Unless my husband ran on an “every day is Sady’s birthday” platform. To which I could easily lend my support!

AMANDA: No. No. But perhaps sometimes it just sneaks up on you, First Ladiness, and though you could never imagine in your wildest dreams that George W. Bush would ever, ever, ever become president, there he is! President! And you, First Lady! And it’s kind of like you just became Queen or something, and there’s kind of a lot of pressure for you not to fuck it up.

SADY: Yeah. I mean, I can’t imagine that anyone, six weeks after meeting George W. Bush (WHICH IS WHEN THEY GOT ENGAGED, BTW) would be like, “this guy is President material!” And, I mean, I’m sympathetic to that, to a certain degree. If your dude is dead set on a political career, and you don’t agree with his politics, and he manages to succeed to an alarming degree, you are in a really bad situation. Because, honestly, his administration just spent years slowly and steadily collapsing. At a certain point, disagreeing with him had to seem disloyal; like, it would no doubt be reported as, “everyone in the entire world thinks George W. Bush is a fuck-up, including his wife.”

AMANDA: Right. I mean, perhaps Laura didn’t want George to get into politics for the same reason that, like, everyone else did, which is that he’s a total disaster on that front. But you can’t say that. Even after the presidency is over, she still isn’t saying that.

SADY: Yeah. And, I mean, I’m trying not to engage in petty left-wing schadenfreude over this. And she spends — in this memoir that I have read, which I apologize for overburdening this chat with details of — SO. MUCH. TIME defending his stupider foreign policy decisions, and him, and trying to paint an appealing picture of the man. But it’s pretty clear now that her whole unconditionally supportive and agreeable Nice Lady Act was… an act. It lasted as long as it took for his term to end, and for her to bang out a memoir, and then she was just like, “okay. So here’s what I ACTUALLY think. Because, SPOILER ALERT, I am a person, and think things.” I just… people loved that woman. Loved her! Even if they didn’t love her husband! And I really wish she’d cashed in on that love to stand up for the right thing, at some point.

AMANDA: And it’s good that at some point they’re allowed to deconstruct the First Lady thing a bit, and recognize that it’s all make-believe. But it doesn’t stop us from expecting the same shit of the next lady. Proposed solution: Make it not a lady next time?

SADY: Right! Make it a lady with a First Gentleman. Or, potentially, a Gentleman with a First Other Gentleman! That would be fun! “Our Gentlemanly duties include: Not putting up with your bullshit, bowling.”

AMANDA: I will be liveblogging the whole thing, I’m sure.

SADY: I will be writing a novel. Mine will not be as good as Sittenfeld’s, I’m pretty sure. But, on the plus side, the First Gentleman will fight way more dragons!

AMANDA: “I Stayed For The Blow Jobs: The First Gentleman’s Story”

16 Comments

  1. Sarah TX wrote:

    Blowjobs in a bowling alley! Yay!

    Sorry, I got carried away…

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 12:18 pm | Permalink
  2. Abigail wrote:

    You’ve done a good job of painting the no doubt frustrating position of First Ladies, but the flipside of your desire for Laura Bush to speak out on the issues she felt strongly about is that, well, no one elected her. The only reason she had a platform as large as she did and as much influence as she did is that she was married to a guy who was. Even taking into account that she put work into getting him elected, I’m not sure how comfortable I am, just in general, with the spouses of world leaders furthering their political agendas using the position of the leader’s spouse, much less with them using it to further an agenda in complete opposition to that leader, who was, again, actually elected. Which is an uncomfortable position for me, because it’s on the same spectrum as the vilification Hillary Clinton went through when she was first lady, but still: no one elected or appointed her. I am, to be honest, more comfortable with Hillary Clinton pursuing her political agenda as an elected senator or an appointed secretary of state than I was when she was the first lady.

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Permalink
  3. Audrey wrote:

    “I Stayed For The Blow Jobs: The First Gentleman’s Story”

    LOLOL.

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  4. Danielle LaBove wrote:

    LOVED. THIS. SO. HARD.

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  5. Gayle Force wrote:

    @Abigail, I definitely hear your point, but I think the problem is that First Ladies seem to be required to stop being people, with desires and thoughts and abilities, and must just become help-meets whose sole job is being a support to their husbands, not that they may run political campaigns while their husband is the executive. I mean, Hillary was an accomplished lawyer, and she was vilified for doing what an accomplished lawyer can do during Bill’s presidency. Whereas Michelle Obama is ALSO an accomplished lawyer, and she is planting gardens and whatever, and is not being pilloried. When the husband becomes president, the women are expected to drop everything and become the ever-smiling soft, feminine side of things. Hence, baking and planting gardens and libraries and the public is ok with you. But if you actually have smart thoughts or skills and try to assert them, and just, you know, be yourself, because you are a fully-fledged human being . . . that is unacceptable.

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink
  6. ladysquires wrote:

    @Abigail

    Except that during high profile campaign, the spouses of the candidates usually undergo pretty rigorous vetting, so the voters have the opportunity make a judgement. Furthermore, after a President is elected, he has the opportunity to appoint a whole staff to assist in the work of governing, staff that no one elected and were not confirmed by the Senate. Now, that staff is usually pulling for the President’s agenda. He’s running the ship, but they do have the opportunity (depending on how open the guy in charge is) to advise, counsel, and advance their own positions.

    My point is that there are highly influential individuals in every administration with quite a bit more distance from the electoral process than the First Lady.

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Permalink
  7. ladysquires wrote:

    campaigns*

    Ugh

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Permalink
  8. GarlandGrey wrote:

    @Abigail We aren’t talking about giving the First Lady launch codes or assigning her a cabinet position. We are talking about the decision to remain silent while your husband does things that are repugnant to you. And the funny thing is, she still defends the really dark, nasty things – the catastrophic war and the unconstitutional expansion of the executive branch, while telling us something we already knew: attacking abortion rights and stymying gay rights were just ways to energize the base.

    Just because she wasn’t elected doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a voice. It would have been nice to hear it when it could have made a difference.

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Permalink
  9. Ethyl wrote:

    “that leader, who was, again, actually elected.”

    Or, you know, wasn’t ;)

    But in all seriousness, Abigail, lots of people aren’t elected who get to spout off their opinions, and who can and do influence policy. Some of them have much MORE influence than others. Lobbyists and religious leaders leap to mind. But there are others — movie stars, for example, campaign and try to affect policy. The entirety of Fox News is basically an unelected shit sandwich that influences national politics.

    None of that is the point, though. The point is, as some other posters have clarified, that “First Ladies” are expected to all be these reincarnations of Jackie O and to smile and wave and be glamorous and fight breast cancer and bake cookies, regardless of what they actually think or feel. And it’s all very gendered expectations, and very rooted in the patriarchy.

    And besides, I doubt VERY MUCH that when there is a First Gentleman, that he is ever villified for speaking his opinions, regardless of whether they are the same as the president’s.

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  10. Tasha Fierce wrote:

    As far as GWB’s first term, I would debate that he was actually “elected”. He was more “appointed” than anything. I don’t see it as being problematic for a non-elected person with a very large platform (gifted though it may be) to speak out about basic human rights issues like gay marriage and abortion. For example, no one elected Al Sharpton, but he continually runs his mouth, which garners media attention and helps further his cause, whatever it may be at the time. It’s everyone’s responsibility to call out human rights violations, whether you’re elected or not. I can see her dilemma, and I refuse to judge her character based on this issue, but I don’t think it’s wrong for a First Lady to utilize that platform.

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 3:53 pm | Permalink
  11. Laura wrote:

    I mean, I can’t imagine that anyone, six weeks after meeting George W. Bush (WHICH IS WHEN THEY GOT ENGAGED, BTW) would be like, “this guy is President material!”

    This comment made me more sympathetic to Laura Bush than anything I’ve ever read! I too am really uncomfortable with the fact that she apparently didn’t think that civil rights were important enough to speak up about for eight years. But man, the idea that she may have married a dude who was kinda nice and jokey and had little nicknames for all their friends and liked to play cowboy on his ranch, and that maybe they “agreed to disagree” on some political issues, but hey, everyone does, right, and then he becomes PRESIDENT practically by ACCIDENT is really chilling to me. I think I was happier when I had zero sympathy for her!

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  12. Victoria wrote:

    I wish we lived in a reality where the wives of candidates could speak, and the candidates could still win. But when Teresa Heinz Kerry attempted to be herself during that campaign, threatened sexists everywhere projected their fear of emasculation onto John Kerry, and then he had to go hunting to prove he had a penis. (Which, by the by, makes me really wish Laura Bush had spoken out, thereby damaging her husband’s chances, etc…) In terms of our awful electoral discourse, Laura did it “right.” That discourse just absolutely sucks.

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 7:00 pm | Permalink
  13. Ali wrote:

    Yeah it has always made me kinda sad how Michelle Obama is obviously SO smart and accomplished and yet in public she has to stick to safe, feminised issues. And I feel like she must be under even MORE pressure because if she exhibited any kind of opinion you just KNOW all the horrible crazies would start bringing her race into it, and calling her an angry black woman or whatever.

    In related news here in the UK (we have lots of The Politics going on here at the moment) David Cameron just became prime minister, and his wife (who, I get the impression, is a very competent businesswoman who loves her job) just quit her job. Although she is pregnant, but I got the impression she quit it for good? Also, Ed Balls (…that’s really his name) is standing for leader of the opposition and Yvette Cooper, his quite-possibly-would-make-a-better-candidate wife, is not running.

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 7:08 pm | Permalink
  14. what is this wrote:

    Looking at Andrew Jackson on this matter from wikipedia:
    “Buchanan and King’s close relationship prompted Andrew Jackson to refer to King as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy”, while Aaron V. Brown spoke of the two as “Buchanan and his wife”.[3][4] Further, some of the contemporary press also speculated about Buchanan and King’s relationship.”

    I had no clue the dawn of America was something like the playground of middleschool.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink
  15. ND wrote:

    How I read the candidates’ wives plays a big part in what I think of the candidates. The kind of women they partner with (um, marry) gives some clue to their postures towards women — but it also works the other way round. I liked how Laura Bush was a librarian and (presumably) a reader, if only as a clue to her character. But it was obvious from go that hubby was lost without his drool bucket, and it’s hard to respect someone who could marry that.

    The Clinton partnership is one of history’s great M/F pairings. You can see what they saw in each other. And each in their way made / makes the other look good.

    I thought Teresa Heinz Kerry was the best thing about her husband. She had great promise as a First Lady. But the least said about the Edwardses the better (you can’t spell Edwardses without ass.) (And you can’t spell Tipper Gore w/o PMRC.)

    Michelle Obama I think reads way more powerfully than her FL duties alone would suggest. Her obvious over-qualification for the job is perverse inspiration. I bet that in a second term (knock on fucking wood) she’ll flex those beautifully toned muscles of hers in less traditional ways than she has so far.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  16. Abigail wrote:

    Gayle, Ladysquires, GarlandGrey, Ethel:

    Of course everyone has the right to express their own opinion, but most of us express it from a platform we arrived at on our own power, whether that means being elected to public office or being hired to fill a position by someone who has a more lofty one or accumulating prestige and respect by running a smart and interesting blog. Even actors have done something to turn the public spotlight onto them. It’s very uncommon for a public figure to be famous just for being someone’s spouse or relative, and when these people speak out on political matters I think they do tend to cluster on the non-controversial, I-oppose-cancer-and-support-literacy end of the scale (so do most politically active celebrities, by the way).

    Furthermore, when a first lady speaks out she’s not doing so as a private person. She (and maybe one day he) occupies an uncomfortable middle ground between being an ordinary citizen and an elected politician (as Ladysquires says, an election is also a referendum on the candidate’s spouse) – which, I think, is one of the points this post makes – so I’m not sure that a first lady speaking out on matters of policy from the White House lawn or the presidential residence is quite the same as Sady writing a blog post or even a politician giving a press conference, because ultimately the president’s spouse isn’t answerable to the voters, and can’t be replaced as political appointees are.

    All that said, I wouldn’t want to come off as feeling terribly certain on this issue. It’s something that I’m quite ambivalent about, and I do take the points that you’ve all raised, particularly the fact that a first lady who does speak out on any but the most domestic and uncontroversial matters is pilloried and feared.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

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  1. links for 2010-05-16 « Embololalia on Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    [...] Tiger Beatdown › SEXIST BEATDOWN: Through the Eyes of Laura Bush Edition SADY: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think people of our age are spoiled, because we grew up with Hillary. Who was actually, you know, interested in politics, and was portrayed as a demon succubus who controlled her husband via brain implant for that very reason. First Ladies in general are supposed to be like, the softer side of the most militarily equipped nation in the world. So they’re expected to take really feminized, feminine causes, like schooling and children and breast cancer and puppies and rainbows and sunshine and, I dunno, fighting the War on Inadequate Dinner Parties, or something. (tags: usa politics us.presidency gender) [...]