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The Bushes

Tom Cutterham

American WifeCurtis Sittenfield
American Wife
Doubleday, 2008
576 Pages
ISBN 978-0385616744

Laura Bush
Spoken from the Heart
Simon & Schuster, 2010
464 Pages
ISBN 978-1847378989

George W. Bush
Decision Points
Virgin Books, 2010
512 Pages
ISBN 978-0753539668

In her review of American Wife, Joyce Carol Oates called Curtis Sittenfield’s novelistic portrayal of the ex-first family “political tragedy reduced to the terms of situation comedy.” That is not quite a criticism. There always was an echo, in George W. and Laura Bush, of the first family of comedy. They share, the Simpsons and the Bushes, an enduring mystery, one that reaches the paradoxical heart of American culture. Is there a third dimension to these two-dimensional characters? And how do they fit together when they seem to represent such different values?

Start with George W. himself. The recent memoir of his years in office, Decision Points, has brought him back into a Republican tableau that has become crowded with eccentric and horrifying characters. Not just Sarah Palin but Christine O’Donnell, Rand Paul, Carl Paladino, and the rest make him seem middle-of-the-road, benign if only in his total irrelevance. Decision Points reminds us not only of the decisions he made, which are yet far more world-changing than anything Palin and co. have said or done, but of the character of the man who ostensibly made them.

Decision Points is just another “memoir written by a privileged white man who has no understanding of, or concern for, the consequences of his actions.” As Paul Constant sublimely points out, if you read it side by side with “Assholes Finish First, the second memoir of online douchelebrity Tucker Max,” switching every hundred pages from one to the next, “they form a nearly seamless biography of a single human being, a sociopathic, overentitled bro who takes a sadistic glee in his own monstrous behavioural flaws.”

Yet Bush’s story need not borrow colour from Max’s misogynist exploits. “In the late 1960s, George Bush Jr was at Yale, branding the asses of pledges to the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity with a hot coathanger.” So opens Eliot Weinberger’s piece in the London Review of Books, from which we also learn that, this one time, he “killed his sister Dora’s goldfish by pouring vodka in the fishbowl.”

These misdemeanours don’t compare, of course, with the enormities committed by Bush in his public role. They merely confirm that the man within was little different from the man without: there is no third dimension in sight. The Bush we see in the book is a projection, a cardboard cut-out, a personality put together by ghost-writers and researchers, ‘team DP’. Weinberger quotes Foucault, “What difference does it make who is speaking?” There is a hint of pity when he argues that Bush was, really, just as much a cipher in life as he is in this book. No more than “a simulacrum: a Connecticut blueblood who pretended to be a Texan cowboy, though he couldn’t ride a horse.”

Weinberger might also have quoted Baudrillard, “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth, it is the truth which conceals that there is none.” But with Laura, there’s something else. Why does she love him? There seems to be a mystery, a truth there somewhere. Laura’s “absolute loyalty to and love for George” was the most striking thing about her, according to Cherie Blair in her review of Spoken From the Heart. For Cherie, however, there is no mystery. How could there be? Her article is but one simulacrum speaking of another.

The way Cherie portrays Laura—perhaps the way Laura portrays herself—is utterly without depth, an apt counterpart to the cowboy George of Decision Points. She is, apparently, “a true daughter of Texas, which makes her honest, feisty and strong-minded.” Cherie worried that she wouldn’t get on with the wife of a Republican. But, thank goodness, “despite our mutual apprehensions, shared love of books and a passion for women’s rights soon helped Laura and I forge a close friendship.”

By contrast, American Wife is more than a two-dimensional portrayal. Alice Blackwell, Sittenfield’s Laura Bush, resembles Weinberger’s take on phony George, except with a variety of self-awareness that makes her poignant, or pitiful. Oates in the New York Times writes that “Alice is never other than ‘good’ – ‘selfless’ – stricken by conscience as she looks back upon the life that has become mysterious and problematic to her, like a life lived by someone not herself.” Both Oates and Sittenfield see Laura/Alice as a prodigal sister; neither can comprehend her “seemingly unquestioned allegiance to a husband with values very different from her own.”

If our conception of George is confirmed by his account of his youth as ‘a pup in a valley of alpha males,’ our picture of Laura can be made only more mysterious, more sad, more human, by the mark made on her at age seventeen when she killed a classmate in a car accident. In American Wife, though not in the autobiography, this boy is more than a friend. His death, as Oates writes, “reverberates through the novel, like a subterranean stream of repressed passion, an abiding guilt and an inconsolable sorrow: ‘Andrew died, I caused his death, and then, like a lover, I took him inside me.'”

Cherie left out the car crash altogether, but she did mention that her daughter Kathryn “found herself getting too angry” to finish American Wife. If she had read it herself, she might have learned more about her friend than she seems to have done from the autobiography. She might have learned about herself, too. People, most people, are more than the simulacra they present to the electorate and media, and their lives are often shaped by deep, secret truths.

Tom Cutterham is reading for a DPhil in American History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. Tom is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.