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!
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.
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”