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The Perfect Wife

The Life and Choices of Laura Bush

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Laura Bush is arguably the most popular figure in the Bush White House. Even the President's detractors would not hesitate to describe the First Lady as utterly sincere and devoted to family and country, whether she is advocating on behalf of education and libraries or comforting the nation in times of crisis.
Ann Gerhart of The Washington Post has covered Mrs. Bush since 2001, and no other reporter has interviewed the First Lady more often. Through this unparalleled access Gerhart has been able to uncover the woman behind the carefully maintained image. Far more than an uncomplicated maternal figure and dedicated wife, Laura Bush emerges as a complex and fascinating woman in her own right, who has composed a life of accomplishment for herself alongside her husband's tremendous ambitions.
The Perfect Wife tells the complete story from Mrs. Bush's upbringing to her whirlwind three-month courtship by George W. Bush and her role as a mother, wife, and public figure. An only child raised in a segregated and fiercely traditional West Texas town, she is less conservative than her husband and appealingly down-to-earth despite the extraordinary privileges of her position. Two tragedies have defined her: a car accident when she was seventeen and September 11, when she suddenly had to transform her job and take herself far more seriously. Ann Gerhart examines the First Lady's influences and motivations, reveals the depths to which her husband relies upon her, and assesses her achievements. Compelling and insightful, this is the first comprehensive account of a woman who has won the admiration of the nation and of the compromises and challenges that come with taking on the most examined volunteer job in the world.

Reading Group Guide for The Perfect Wife
1. What did the title of this book, The Perfect Wife, lead you to think about this biography? Before reading the book did you presume that the author had a particular opinion of Laura Bush? What do you think of the author's opinion now? What kind of woman would you consider a "perfect wife"? Which of Laura's characteristics do you believe the author wanted to call attention to with that description?
2. The biography begins with the tragic death of Laura's classmate. Why do you think the author chose to start at that point in Laura's life? How might the accident have affected the demeanor Laura adopted in later years and the choices she made in her life?
3. The town Laura grew up in, Midland, Texas, of the 1960s, was a deeply segregated community. There were limited opportunities for minorities and for women. How do you think that environment affected Laura Bush? Think about the schools she chose to teach in as well as her choice of career. Also, how do you think her childhood impressions of marriage and the roles of women affect her relationship with George as her husband and as President? To what extent do you believe she adopted the attitudes modeled for her in her childhood, and to what extent has she charted a new course for herself?
4. The author notes that Laura gave up her teaching career when she married George. She also quotes Margaret LaMontagne Spellings, Bush's domestic policy adviser, who offered this observation: "Mrs. Bush discovered the power of her office allowed her to do good and fulfill some of her career goals" (125). What do you think Laura's career goals were? How do you think she balanced the choices that so many women have to make between having a family and having a career?
5. There are many advantages to being First Lady, and many handicaps as well. What opportunities did the role open up for Laura? Where do you think she found personal satisfaction in her husband's first-term? On the other hand, what aspects of her being First Lady might prevent her from doing all she might wish? How do her image (and the image of the President), political necessities, and the expectations of the American public all affect the projects she undertakes and the way she exercises her influence?
6. Similarly, do you think Laura inhabits the role of First Lady comfortably? Could she, if she chose, take greater advantage of her position? Or is she hampered by its conflicting demands? Ideally, what do think the role of the First Lady should be? How do you think her experience compares to that of other First Ladies?
7. The Perfect Wife is a biography of Laura Bush, however, the author gives us fleeting glimpses of President Bush as well. Do you think the sparse information about George is enough to show his impact on her life? In other words, is it possible to study Laura without studying George? How much of an effect do they have on each other?
8. Throughout this biography Laura is described as a talented homemaker. She can literally make a "home" out of a house in one weekend. Think about the homes she's lived in, from the house on Humble Avenue to her first house with George to the Crawford ranch and the White House. How do each of these places, particularly the ranch, reflect her character?
9. The author says of Laura as First Lady, "She is stubbornly protective of the small zone of privacy afforded her in this country's most visible role for a woman" (xi). What parts of herself and her family does Laura guard, and why?
10. Laura has been protective of her twin daughters ever since her troubled pregnancy. The author describes her as doting, even permissive, mother. How did you react to Laura's style of mothering? Do you think the decisions she has made regarding Barbara and Jenna reflect her own character?
11. How successfully do you think the author penetrated the more personal aspects of Laura's life? What techniques does she use to shed light on matters Laura does not discuss? Do her insights seem on the mark, or far-fetched?
12. Reading the biography, did you get the impression that the author had a political agenda? Did you notice any obvious bias or prejudice, or was her work an objective account of Laura's life so far?
Photo Credit:

Ann Gerhart, a veteran reporter for the Style section of The Washington Post, covered the 2004 Presidential campaign. She has interviewed Laura Bush extensively since 2001 and has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, CBS News, C-Span, Fox News, A&E, and VH1 to discuss the First Lady. She lives with her husband and three children in Bethesda, Maryland.

"Gerhart is a wonderful observer, with a keen eye for detail and an excellent ear for conversation."
-- The Washington Post

"Gerhart has written an interesting book that at times makes Mrs. Bush seem a modern version of those nineteenth-century Edith Wharton wives, finding their own rich private lives amid the hard conventions of marriage and motherhood."
-- The New York Times Book Review

"The Perfect Wife is an admiring, sympathetic account of why Laura Bush is so darn nice."
-- The Washingtonian

"We may have to wait until history loosens lips to learn how much influence Laura Bush has in the White House. Meanwhile, Gerhart has made a good start at introducing us to the woman behind the smiling public mask."
-- USA Today

"Well-reported and perceptive...[it] is a short, breezy, guilty pleasure of a book, full of juicy quotes and anecdotes....Gerhart offers an unflinchingly clear-eyed view of her subject's foibles."
-- The Washington Monthly

"Captivating."
-- The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Laura Bush is superbly defined in this new biography by Ann Gerhart. If you are one of the multitudes who have wondered what the First Lady is really like, then reading The Perfect Wife is a must. It's a wonderful book."
-- Helen Thomas, Hearst newspaper columnist and author of Dateline: White House and Front Row at the White House