It’s been a long time since I saw A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum but I seem to recall that one of the characters was a beautiful mute woman. The man who won her hand was congratulated. He was lucky to have such a beautiful wife and her value was immeasurable because she couldn’t speak. The exact quote was funnier coming from the mouth of Zero Mostel but only because it was so obviously farcical.
What isn’t so obvious is this piece by Tunku Varadarajan at Forbes.com called In Praise of Laura Bush. I don’t want to sound culturally insensitive but maybe Tunku’s heritage has something to do with his attitude towards women. But he doesn’t chide her for failing to walk three paces behind George, which for Varadarajan must be an admirable show of restraint. Nevertheless, we get a keen insight into the minds of the well-connected that is, well, downright first century:
For eight years, Mrs. Bush has come to represent quiet grace in a White House marked by gaudy bluster. She was a measured, succinct first lady in a presidency that came to symbolize frantic ambition–and frantic ideology. She has been an old-style first lady, never seeking to upstage her husband, and she has, in truth, been one of the very few bright spots of an invariably dysfunctional, and occasionally scary, administration.
Laura Bush was self-effacing by choice, and by an exquisite understanding of her role in the White House. She was only noticed when she wanted to be, and when such moments came she held our attention with a fragrant panache
There has never been any doubt, however, that she Stands By Her Man, and it might even be said that she has “mothered” him to a significant extent: by being patient, and fully aware of her (frat) boy’s tendency to over-exuberance; and by tamping down the tempests that surge within his breast. Somewhere along the line, she may even have saved his life.
Mrs. Bush is of a certain American type: wholesome, inclined to good works, a homemaker and mother, a supporter of the man she married, a smiling hostess. She is not flashy or colorful, overly intellectual or palpably shrewd, demonstrably independent or politically aggressive.
My, my, my, there is a certain unspoken something in Mr. Varadarajan’s commentary that resembles negative space. It is the thing that is referred to by its absence. Or should I say, the *she* that is referred to by her absence?
But put her aside for a moment. I, for one, will be very happy to see Laura Bush leave the White House. Mr. Varadarajan refers to her as a certain American type. Indeed, Edith Wharton referred to Laura’s type when she wrote The Age of innocence. Laura is very much in the model of the May Archer type. She is a woman of no great curiousity and who lives a very constrained existence in the narrow field of vision granted to her by her tribe. In her case, the tribe is wealthy and cloistered. Her behavior and actions are dictated by those around her. As long as she sticks to the convention and expectations of those who govern her actions, she will live in comfort and security. Wharton called it a “hard bright blindness” that May Archer lived in. She was not unaware of unpleasantness beyond her sphere. She just chose to not acknowledge it.
I see Laura Bush as a complete and utter failure as a First Lady. She lived in the White House for eight years and her presence, personality and will seem to have left no impression on her ceremonial office or her husband’s policies. She is not remembered for any initiatives or interests. Her literacy project was started with little fanfare and spluttered into nothingness over the years. She stands out to me most notably as the person who unequivocally condemned stem cell research, as only a person untouched by personal medical tragedies could do. It wasn’t heartlessness so much as her heart would not let itself be troubled by pain and misery. I have no doubt that she has experienced such pain but her milieu has allowed her to put it behind her, to lock it away, to regard it as an artifact.
Her “certain American type” still exists in the country clubbed, blonde bobbed havens of the moneyed class and the middle class suburbanites who strive to the next step up. I know people like her in my suburban wasteland who carefully monitor themselves and others so that they can glide through life relatively unscathed. Their children are scheduled to an inch of their lives and grow up in a kind of hothouse atmosphere where the only children they are allowed to know are the children of their parents’ friends. They are colorless and flavorless.
Mr. Varadarajan’s opinion of Mrs. Bush is laughable to me. Since Hillary Clinton became first lady while I was still young and impressionable, *she* is my role model. Working women want to see a woman in the White House who is everything that Mr. Varadarajan despises. We want to see independence, intelligent, shrewdness and a certain amount of ambition. What woman would come away from 8 years of experience without a certain amount of ambition? How can a person not want to use what she has learned to change the world, unless the person in question is emotionally and intellectually dead?
Of course, following Laura Bush’s model will keep the nasty press off your back and if you really want to give it all up to become Mom-In-Chief, well, that’s your choice. But I sincerely hope that Michelle Obama makes a point of saying that she is not a role model for the vast majority of working class women out here. And by working class, I mean anyone not in Laura Bush’s social stratum. If you have to work for a living, you’re working class, no matter what you do. Most women in the country can’t give up their lives to stay home with the cookies and milk for two girls who do not require full time daycare anymore. What Michelle Obama does between the hours of 9-3 is up to her but I really hope she doesn’t pretend she’s a housewife.
If the next First Lady doesn’t want to end up like the last one, she’ll speak up, show us how smart she is, get a little ambitious and tell Mr. Varadarajan to take a long hike off a very short pier.