Chapter One: Midland
We feel really fortunate to have grown up in West Texas where I think values are really rock solid. It's not very easy to be pretentious....West Texans will call you down immediately. I think that gave us a really solid base.
Laura Bush, in the Midland Star-Telegram, September 5, 2002
She was seventeen, a few days past her birthday in her senior year, a girl with her daddy's car keys. There was a party, on a weeknight. That wasn't much the sort of thing Jenna and Harold Welch let their girl do, go to a party in the middle of the week. But really, Laura was such a good girl, this only child of theirs, an angel, a love. She had never given them a moment's trouble. She was steady and smart and quiet, and her friends were the Brownies she knew from grade school. She always laughed at her father's jokes; he was a cutup, easy and friendly and open. She always sat by her mother, though. On visits to her grandmother some hours away, Laura and her mother would take turns reading in the car out loud to each other, the huge sky of West Texas arching out before them, vast and familiar, Manifest Destiny beckoning in the shimmering of the nighttime stars.
That sky, it let you see forever. Between Midland and Lubbock, some 150 miles apart, nothing stood but a few villages and scrub and electric poles and those lonely oil pumps, dipping up, swinging down, up and down, up and down, a rhythm that gave pace and purpose to an entire region. Midland proper was so orderly, a firm societal stand against the whims and sins of the prairie. There were no bars, and dozens of churches, and the streets were testament to the disciples of commerce who had delivered the good people from a lifetime of grit and toil. Laura lived on Humble Avenue, named, transparently enough, for one of the petroleum conglomerates; the next streets over were Shell and Sinclair. That was Midland in the 1960s, the Midland that Laura's father, Harold Welch, helped to build: Your aspirations could be realized in your address Lockheed or Cessna or Boeing avenues for the white-collar engineers, or Yale, Harvard, and Princeton avenues for the East Coast elites like George Herbert Walker Bush who came west to seek their fortunes in the fossils.
Those streets were laid out on a tidy grid, with millions of gallons of water sent to sustain lush lawns hardly native to West Texas, lawns that decades later Laura would decide were environmentally incorrect. The people in the houses liked to think they lived tidy lives two parents, a carport, drinks at the country club, touch football after church. Beyond the town limits was untameable terrain, a flat expanse of ranchland, parched brown and ocher, unbroken by trees. You could see for miles. And it was dry, and it was clear, and it was so bright at night under the star canopy, and there wasn't traffic back in those days, not like there is today, everybody hurrying over to the Target or the Sam's Club or the Jumburrito. So there would have been no reasonable excuse for even protective parents to say no to a daughter who wanted to go to a party, especially when she was such a good and responsible girl.
And so they said yes.
And Jenna would have had her book, and Harold would have had his television, and after a spell, the phone would have rung with the news, preceded with an, "Ah'm so sorry to have to tell you..." My word, she hadn't been gone but a little while, and now Laura's parents were being summoned to Midland Memorial Hospital.
Laura, they learned, had been speeding blithely out of town about 8 P.M., east on Farm Road 868, her high school friend Judy Dykes in the passenger seat. She never saw the stop sign. She never saw the other car. She plowed right through that stop sign and slammed hard into the 1962 Corvair coming south and with the right-of-way, on State Road 349, the La Mesa Highway. She was fine, really, the officer assured her parents, but bruised and banged up, and awfully upset. Judy was shaking but unharmed as well. But the boy in the other car, well, the force of the broadside impact was so severe that, well...He never had a chance. Michael Douglas, golden boy of Midland, high school track star, was dead on arrival at Midland Memorial Hospital. The two girls were taken there, too, in another ambulance. Mike Douglas's father had been driving another car behind his son. He saw the entire horrific scene, the explosive beginning of a nightmare that haunted him his whole life.
The front-page story in the Midland Reporter-Telegram was blunt and nonaccusatory. "Police said death was attributed to a broken neck," the paper reported, using that passive voice peculiar to newspaper writing. But the news flew through Midland about whose actions had caused that death.
Killing another person was a tragic, shattering error for a girl to make at seventeen. It was one of those hinges in a life, a moment when destiny shuddered, then lurched in a new direction. In its aftermath, Laura became more cautious and less spontaneous, more inclined to be compassionate, less inclined to judge another person.
What made the crash even more devastating was that the boy Laura killed was no stranger but a good friend of hers, a boy from her crowd. Some said Mike Douglas was her boyfriend. Or had been, or maybe she wanted him to be. Douglas was also a senior at Midland's Robert E. Lee High School, also seventeen. A star athlete, the kind of boy other boys wanted to be around, the kind of boy the girls sidled up to. That face and that grin stared out from the paper's front page the next day, under the headline "Lee High School Senior Dies in Traffic Mishap."
"I can see his face today," said Robert McCleskey, a contemporary of Laura's and the Bushes' personal accountant, when I interviewed him forty years later. "Always smiling. Just like his dad."
In Midland, Texas, in 1963, there were no grief counselors. No one had yet conceived of the need for such a job. And so the teenagers of Midland were at sea when it came to explaining and contemplating and coping with the shock and guilt and grief and existential angst that the young Laura Welch experienced. There were pastors who might comfort with a piece of Scripture, murmur, "Let us bow our heads in prayer," and ask for the Lord's healing power. There were parents, who might sit at the edge of their child's bed and pat a shoulder heaving with sobs. Mostly, Mike's death left his classmates stunned into silence. For most of them, and certainly for Laura, it was their first experience with someone dying young, behind the wheel. Another classmate had died a year before. Hit in the head during football practice, he was discharged from the hospital after a cursory examination, then went home and died. But with the gregarious, energetic Mike suddenly gone, the kids didn't know what to say. They didn't know what to do. They wept together at his funeral a few days later, groping toward comprehension, the girls falling apart in each other's arms, the boys stoically trudging into the Douglas home to visit the bereaved parents. "It was the first time you find you're not bulletproof and invincible," McCleskey recalled. "You don't have to deal with death. It was the first time we had to deal with all that."
Laura suffered alone. The pain was "crushing," she said years later. When all her friends went to Mike's funeral, she stayed home. Even her best friend then, who has grown to be her closest confidante, did not reach out to her. When I asked Regan Gammon, now a community activist in Austin, to recall how Laura coped with the accident, she said, "That was a very hard time. He was wonderful. It changed everyone in some way. I know I was so sad I might not have been able to see how sad Laura was. He was a very close friend of Laura's."
"Have you ever been around a high school where that sort of thing happened?" asked Tobia Hochman Gunesch, who had lived two doors down the street from Laura for much of her life and went on to become the salutatorian of Laura's graduating class. "There was a lot of high school girls' sobbing. I'm sure I never said anything directly to her, and I bet most people didn't."
High school life went on, and later that month the horror and shame that afflicted Texans from the front page of the Midland Star-Telegram came from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, who had been gunned down in Dallas as he drove through town in an open Lincoln Continental. After Mike Douglas's death, Laura stayed home from school for a few weeks, and when she returned, nobody said a word about the car crash to her. The police accident report notes that the pavement was dry and the visibility excellent on the night Laura flew through the stop sign at 50 miles per hour. The photos in the police file show an intersection bisecting the flat Texas landscape, a stop sign unobscured by buildings or shrubs, nothing but utility poles marching toward the horizon. They show the violence of the impact: Mike Douglas's '62 Corvair looks like one of those carcasses police departments put by the side of the road to scare people off drinking and driving. Its metal hood and right front side panel are crumpled like a ball of paper, its entire chassis wrenched out of shape. The report by the officer on the scene notes that the investigation was not complete, but if there was any follow-up investigation, those results have long since disappeared from the files at the Midland County Attorney's Office. An air of mystery still surrounds the crash. Folks in Midland were eager to ask questions: What was Laura doing way out of town that night? Where was she going? Who was she going to meet? But in any event, she was not charged, not even ticketed for running through the stop sign, although Douglas's death was the second fatality at that same intersection that year. The police reportedly found no evidence of drinking or excessive speed, although the report is inconclusive as to whether she was tested for alcohol. Perhaps the local authorities regarded the whole episode the same way that Laura herself described it to me, as "a tragic accident." Certainly, many of her fellow Lee students saw it that way. Perhaps, like many white teenagers of comfortable means, then and now, Laura Welch was granted that chance to make a terrible mistake without it ruining her life. Perhaps Mike Douglas's parents, who lived out in the country and weren't part of the more affluent set in town, didn't have the right connections to press for a more vigorous investigation. Perhaps they didn't have the inclination. Perhaps the powers-that-be in Midland decreed that Laura had suffered enough. Certainly when she came back to school, she was more subdued than ever. No one would have needed to ask her why.
In the 1964 Rebelee yearbook, the list of clubs and associations behind the name of Laura Welch is shorter than many, and longer than some. She was neither a loner nor a class leader. She was not one of those supernovas who blaze through high school. She is listed as a member of the Junior Council and a homecoming queen nominee, as well as a Student Council alternate. Some other girl became homecoming queen. The yearbook does not list her making National Honor Society for her academic achievements, or joining the Future Teachers of America, despite her current reputation as an intellectual and a girl who had devoted herself to teaching by the second grade.
Her dark hair is parted on the side, and Laura is wearing it in a bouffant flip. She is smiling in the yearbook picture; she is the prettiest girl on the page, one pleasant face in a stack of fifteen seniors, not a particularly remarkable girl. She is easy to overlook. But there is no overlooking Mike Douglas in that same yearbook. There is a two-page memoriam to him.
On the left is his senior photo, displaying his good facial bones and wide smile. On the right is a poem and two more photos, of him running in his track uniform and of him sitting in his open Jeep, the one he drove around at high school games, the one he adorned with a huge confederate flag on the frame to pay homage to the school's namesake, the Civil War's legendary Southern general Robert E. Lee.
The poem is aching and awkward, and I read it in the library of Lee High School. At the next tables lunky bored teenage boys either dozed or talked trash when the librarian was out of earshot. They wore their pants baggy, drooping below the elastic of their boxer shorts, and many had earrings. A fight broke out in the courtyard between a couple of black boys, and suddenly the library boys came to life, and ran outside to check out what was happening. They ran right past an old Civil War cannon that sat rusting in the school courtyard, the wood of its wheel spokes rotting. The bell rang just then, signaling a change of periods, and students burst into the courtyard. Fragments of noisy conversations some in English, some in Spanish floated on the air. "He an asshole!" a girl in a tight camisole and head wrap passionately declared to her friend. "When you gonna tell him he an asshole?" Her friend clutched her books and tossed her hair, and the pair stormed by the cannon, with its plaque saying it was dedicated by Mr. and Mrs. W. T. Douglas, in memory of their son Michael. Ancient history.
I went back inside the library. An entire glass display case had been given over to current history the accomplishments of that once unremarkable girl, now the first lady of the United States. Here was Laura Bush in a mint-green silk suit, on the cover of Parade magazine, being praised for her reassuring manner after the trauma of September 11, 2001. Here was the student directory for her graduating class. I looked through the yearbook again. On the page in front of me, the poem eulogizing Mike Douglas evoked a different era, before high school violence and racial crisis and careful data chronicling the achievement gaps between the poor and middle class, before girls cussed right out loud, in the hallways, as good as the boys. Reading the poem, I could envision the yearbook adviser as the grief counselor, leaning over her student editors, in their white blouses with the Peter Pan collars, as they chewed on their pencils and struggled to eulogize their friend.
Always I'll recall
That sense of fun,
The effervescent good will
And the obedience to duty
That was Mike Douglas.
...So I'll close my eyes
And I'll smile.
Anytime Laura Bush chooses to reminisce about her Midland roots by paging through her yearbook, Mike Douglas is forever seventeen, forever grinning, forever lithe in running shorts, forever casting a shadow over her. The serenity and strength that Americans have come to admire in their first lady are qualities hard-won. Causing Mike Douglas's death, Laura Bush told me, "made me have more of a perspective on life. And maybe I would already have had that perspective anyway. I just got it at seventeen. Certainly, as a parent, you have another perspective on a tragic accident like that. You are aware at the time, but you don't know the true implications until you have your own children.
"I grieved a lot. It was a horrible, horrible tragedy. It's a terrible feeling to be responsible for an accident. And it was horrible for all of us to lose him, especially since he was so young," she said in an interview with Oprah magazine. "But at some point I had to accept that death is a part of life, and as tragic as losing Mike was, there was nothing anyone could do to change that....It was a comeuppance. At that age, you think you're immortal, invincible. You never expect to lose anybody you love when you're so young. For all of us, it was a shock. It was a sign of the preciousness of life and how fleeting it can be."
It is a few days after the Grand Old Party's triumphant sweep on election day 2002, and the ladies of the Midland County Republican Women's club have put on their knit suits and their star-spangled elephant pins and flocked to their monthly luncheon upstairs at the Petroleum Club. The Petroleum Club is a bulwark of old Midland, which is a town where, everyone tells you, everyone knows everybody else. As always, this is not exactly right. Old Midland tries to stand firm. There is the Petroleum Club, and the First United Methodist Church "Sharing Christ from the Heart of Midland" and the Young Men's Christian Association up on Big Spring Road, and Johnny's Barbecue, where Laura's daddy, Harold Welch, used to put down his friendly wagers on football Saturdays. Harold died in 1995, and now his contemporaries stay away from the hot sauce and plant themselves in front of Johnny's small TV to stare as their stocks crawl across the bottom of CNBC. And much of downtown Midland is abandoned. Its storefronts are vacant. There's no department store anymore. Oil Bust is writ on every city block. From far away on the flatlands, driving toward Midland some twenty miles out, you can see the tall buildings glistening in the distance, like Oz. But when you get up close, they're mostly empty.
The old Ritz Theater doesn't show movies anymore, but it's kept alive with salsa nights on Tuesdays. Everybody doesn't know everybody else because the people frequenting salsa night at the old theater are working the dishwasher at the Petroleum Club, not sitting down in the dining room. Once, only the oilmen, the engineers and the independent operators and the map men held court at the Petroleum Club, gathering each day promptly at noon for food and drinks and cards at a penny a hand. Once, only Democrats populated West Texas, and Republicans were considered, as George W. Bush once said, "kind of weird." Change comes little by little, even to Midland. The oilmen are still downstairs at the Petroleum Club, but now the Republican ladies drift upstairs to lunch, clouds of perfume and tinkly laughter trailing down the stairs behind them.
The room is full. The Midland Republican Women are a force, capital F, and state officials have learned to come pay their due, since George W.'s father, George Herbert Walker Bush, nearly singlehandledly muscled the GOP into the state. Laura's mother, Jenna Welch, is there, sitting at a table near the dais, and various ladies come to pay their respects. She is much loved, and she gets around quite ably, Jenna does, for a woman born in 1919. She lives alone in the house on Humble Avenue and drives herself around town, to meetings and church and Tuesday suppers at Luby's Cafeteria, where her adult Bible study group has been eating weekly for years. ("Of all the Bible groups," the pastor of First United Methodist Church of Midland, C. Lane Boyd, told me, "Jenna's group has the most fun.") Or she's running down to Austin for the book festival her daughter started, or she's flying off to meet up with her at the White House or the Crawford ranch. She has persevered through widowhood and breast cancer and the plummet of her retirement stock with Enron. That last hurdle came to the world's attention when President Bush declared publicly, in indignation, "even my mother-in-law lost $7,000," which caused Jenna to chide him, "That's the last time I tell you anything about my investments." Jenna was a Democrat until she became a Republican-in-law. But she and Harold were never "one of those yellow-dog democrats, you know, would rather vote for a yellow-dog than a Republican," her son-in-law, the president, has said. "They weren't, you know, unreasonable Democrats." That was his wife, Laura, who voted for Eugene McCarthy.
After everybody moves through the buffet line, getting some ham and green beans, the incoming president of the Midland County Republican Women, Beverly Brock, rises to speak. She looks quite a bit like Tammy Faye Bakker, and she invokes how God helped Texas Republicans to a magnificent win in the previous week, sweeping the offices of governor and lieutenant governor and U.S. senator and on down. Denise Burns, who is the wife of former Midland mayor Bobby Burns, whispers to me: "Do you think God's on our side? I don't think God's a Republican or a Democrat." The audience of a couple hundred of these faithful is a sea of red, white, and blue, and Bobby surveys the women, then smiles and drawls: "If you got them against you, you got a problem." Today, the gossip of those in charge of Midland is over what prompted their congressman to abruptly announce his resignation, only days after he had won a new term. Jockeying for his position has already begun, and Beverly Brock addresses this new political opportunity by saying, to the Midland County Republican Women, "we have a lot of good men available to us," to seek the seat. To me, the Yankee, the Easterner, this seems a startling oversight with so many accomplished women in earshot, including the outgoing president, who is one of the town's assistant district attorneys. And Denise Burns notes it as well. This very morning her husband has been on the local television station to smoothly reference his own prospects, but now Denise says, with a laugh, "Maybe I'll do it. You can stay here and watch him play football," referring to their high-schooler son. Denise is in her forties, and she works in Bobby's insurance agency.
Then David Dewhurst, impossibly tall, smelling of cologne, hair overcoiffed, speaks to the ladies. He has just ascended to lieutenant governor, which some say is the executive spot in Texas with the real authority, more power than the governor has. He pledges there will be a state income tax "over my cold dead body." He promises to cut the "unacceptable" high school dropout rate, which floats between a shocking 30 and 50 percent. The ladies burst into applause. They pass the ceramic elephant bowls to raise some funds for operations, and Jenna snaps open the clasp of her handbag and removes a few bills. She is wearing a very nice royal blue knit suit, and it sets off her eyes. To look at her is to see the source of her daughter's sense of grace. To look at the entire scene is to see the source of her daughter's sense of where women fit into the world.
Later that night, I sit down for dinner at the Greentree Country Club with Steve Buck, who is the president of the Midland Federation of Teachers, and I tell him about my visit with the Republican ladies, which he readily interprets. His own attitudes toward race and class and gender began to change when he got out of town after high school and went to North Texas State, which actually had black athletes, and when he started teaching, and got to know women.
"Not only was Midland prejudiced against color, no oil company ever hired a female," he says. "I mean, I don't think there was an engineer who was female or working in any way, other than a secretary, ever. I mean, that was just the good ol' boys. And the oil deals were done at bars and clubs. They were all done on a handshake. Women were not allowed. And that's the reason why, those women at the Republican Women's club, they have never worked a day in their lives. Not one day. That's why they can have their meetings at noon on a Wednesday. But they can all sit right there and write out of their checking accounts, big, big checks."
"They've got their Junior League on Thursday," adds Steve's wife, Peggy, also a teacher. "And Garden Club on Friday."
"And that is still what they do," says Steve. "That's the role of women here. And that has a lot to do with why Laura is the way she is, too. She was brought up in that role for women."
Laura herself has said, "I've always done what really traditional women do, and I've been very, very satisfied."
Not that that's the whole story. It never is. People who look uncomplicated may instead be preternaturally disciplined, or disinclined to reveal their complications in public.
Laura Lane Welch was born in Midland on November 4, 1946, as the post-World War II boom watered the parched Permian Basin with money. More Texan than her husband, with his New England pedigree, she doesn't much talk about "her people," and there is no detail of her early years on her official White House biography. Doing what "really traditional women do" means selling short those years before your marriage. But in the foreword to Whatever the Wind Delivers, a collection of archival photos and poetry of West Texas, Laura writes that the book "could be a scrapbook from my father's side of the family. My grandparents, Mark and Lula Lane Welch, moved to Lubbock in 1918, and that's where they stayed. They lived through the 'dust bowl' days, and these images might have been familiar to them. My father, Harold Welch, was six when they arrived." The black-and-white photographs in the book evoke a frontier land of hardened, sunburned men and the tough women, sturdy of temperament, they found to accompany them. There are women in good long white dresses, posing before covered wagons, defiant apostles for maintaining proper ways in the face of harsh conditions. There is a tiny child perched atop a huge swaybacked workhorse, and a remarkable captured moment of leisure in all that hard life women in bonnets and men in scuffed boots doing a two-step procession, making their own fun, far from any organized entertainment. Her ancestors sank their roots into Laura Bush that way. She has that same capacity for creating a sense of place and community out of the harshest conditions of her own.
In the collection's foreword, Laura said she had been fascinated with West Texas since her early trips to Lubbock. As a reflective adult, she came to understand, "To survive, every day is a negotiation, an agreement, an acceptance of terms that the soil and the sky outline without the slightest bit of consideration. And yet, even at its worst at its dustiest, hottest, and driest the region is rich with anticipation and hope for a merciful change. And it does change.
"Just when a man resigns his fields to a dry season, precious rain bursts from a cloud, calming the dust about his boots, washing the red dirt off the windows of his pickup and summoning birds to bathe and drink. This is the paradox of West Texas and the mighty Southwest. It is at once dull and unpredictable; subtle and grand." It is impossible to read these words without seeing them as metaphor no, as actual premonition for the paradox of a wife's life within 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, at once constrained and lavish with opportunity.
Laura Bush comes from stalwart maternal stock, a line of women who adapted themselves to heartbreak and deprivation. "Texas is a pretty unforgiving landscape," Laura said, "and it was a difficult state for women as well as for men. I think that's one reason Texas is known for having so many strong women." An only child, Laura was born to an only child. Jenna Welch's mother, Jessie, was one of seven girls, raised alone by their mother, Laura's great-grandmother Eva, after her husband committed suicide and left her a widow at forty-two. According to Jenna Welch, Eva maintained a successful dairy farm outside Little Rock, Arkansas, using her own girls as the labor, for the milking and barn cleaning and delivery. They were independent women, all of them, in the only way that was acceptable earning their livelihood. If Eva had still had a husband, her business acumen would have been considered uppity. But she was alone, and her independence therefore acceptable to the social structure, although it might have been seen as a quality to be pitied rather than admired. Her daughter Jessie, Laura's maternal grandmother, made the milk deliveries in a Model T. Along the way, she met a postman. The milkwoman and the mailman came from the same kind of family. Harold Hawkins also had been raised by a widow, who provided for her five children by running the family grocery store. They got married, and when Harold joined the army in World War I, Jessie Hawkins took over her husband's mail route. When Laura visited them at their home in El Paso when she was little, her granddaddy would sometimes sip Texas Select bourbon instead of orange juice in the morning. Her grandmother loved her gardening, and died doing just that.
With that formidable matriarchy behind her, Jenna Hawkins, Laura's mother, maintained her own flinty but quiet independence after her marriage to Harold Welch, who hitched her up at the Fort Bliss military chapel during one of his army leaves in 1944. After the war, Welch worked for a credit company in El Paso, but he wanted to be a home builder the way his father had been in Lubbock. He and Jenna moved to Midland, named for its location halfway between El Paso and Dallas, to build homes for workers in the burgeoning oil business. He developed scores of individual homes around town. He and Jenna were a team. He built; she kept the books. "Mrs. Welch helped run the financial part of that business," said Robert McCleskey. "She was pretty sharp with investments and stuff like that." Harold was garrulous and charismatic, always quick with a slap on the back and a quip. Jenna was reserved and refined and delighted in her husband's humor. Their only child watched that marriage and took it as a model for her own, and noted: Jenna was a woman "of that generation who really wanted to please her husband and cooked three meals a day....But she was also interested in a lot of things outside her marriage." Jessie had passed down to her daughter a keen interest in the natural world Jenna could name and identify hundreds of birds and plants native to the region and she in turn passed this down to her daughter. When Jenna was the Girl Scout troop leader and shepherded the girls toward their badges, she made sure those girls could identify their Texas birds.
Bird-watching is easily dismissed as fusty by those enamored of louder, action-packed pursuits. It is the essence of passive passion, and, if humans were catalogued in the way Audubon did birds, their entry might read, "Bird-watchers most often are observed in the company of readers, knitters, crossword puzzlers, and fanciers of other solitary, meditative pursuits." It is contemplative and soothing, and, to those reflective souls seeking to learn some subtleties of the vast social hierarchy of nature, it could be revealing. Jenna was particularly found of the phalarope, a water bird. She once noted that "the female runs off on little errands of her own, and leaves the male to care for the young." When it came to birding, neither Harold Welch nor George Bush could be bothered. In Bush's case, the image of him sitting for hours without moving was flat-out ridiculous, a man who lived for speed fighter jets, cigarette racer boats, the six-minute mile. But he would indulge his wife's naturalist habits, even showing off to visitors at their Crawford ranch the stands of hardwoods they preserved as habitat for the rare golden-cheeked warbler.
In a precious few generations, West Texas life had grown considerably easier for the Hawkins women. But Jenna had her sorrows. She miscarried several times. Over and over, she carried a baby nearly to term, only to go into labor prematurely and have the baby die within days. Laura was certainly aware of her parents' painful quest for more children. Once, they told her they were looking for a little brother or sister for her, and took her along for a visit to the Gladney adoption home in Fort Worth, although they later decided not to continue with the adoption. And Laura at an early age began feeling some responsibility for her parents' emotional well-being, much like her husband, George, who at the age of seven took on the role of caring for his mother, Barbara, after the death of his sister Robin. "I felt very obligated to my parents," Laura said. "I didn't want to upset them in any way."
And she grew up "sort of lonely," she said, although she was always careful to add what an idyllic childhood she had in 1950s and 1960s Midland, where nobody ever locked their doors and kids pedaled everywhere on their bikes. Her parents doted on her. Jenna knew from her own experience that being an only child could bind you closely to your mother. It could confer unparalleled self-assurance. Only children don't need to compete for their parents' love and attention; it flows solely to them. But they are also deprived of the steadfast fraternity of siblings. Jenna put Laura in dance classes and Brownies and choir at First United Methodist Church and swimming lessons. It was quite the scheduled life for a child of that era in small-town Texas. The little girl was so eager for friends that after her first week of private kindergarten, she had memorized the name of every student in her class. Looking back, Laura said, "I was lucky to have a very normal childhood in a small town where people felt very free to do whatever we wanted to do. We were sheltered in this freedom in a way that maybe we didn't understand."
Laura herself and many of her friends recollect the Midland of their youth as a rosy world of slumber parties and recess games and sodas at the Rexall drugstore. Summers, boys played baseball, and girls splashed around in each other's pools. In important ways, though, this freedom was reserved for a special group the white offspring of the middle class. Midland was segregated; its school district was among the last, and, according to some accounts, dead last in the nation to be integrated, and even then only when the federal government threatened to bring in the marshals. Blacks lived on the other side of Florida Avenue, and knew to stay in their place, the women venturing out only to work as domestics for the white ladies. Hispanics were "wetbacks," who had been smuggled in to pick cotton. And women? They were to keep to their place, too. Jenna Welch had been smart enough to marry a man who respected her mind and let her put it to use. Behind the carefully tended lawns and solid brick walls of their houses, many intelligent women drank their boredom away. Dottie Craig remembers them well.
The geographic isolation of Midland was especially severe for the transplants, women from back East whose husbands decided to strike it rich in the Permian Basin. The daughter of a New York city surgeon and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vassar College, Dottie Craig has lived in Midland for more than fifty years. She can still remember vividly that August day in 1950 when her husband, Earle, returned from his reconnaissance of Midland to the lush rolling hills of western Pennsylvania, where they lived. Dottie said she asked Earle, "'What is Midland like?' And he said, 'There's a town nearby called No Trees,' and I nodded, and then I went out in the garden and I cried."
Like George and Barbara Bush, with whom they became close friends, the Craigs came from old moneyed families, but Earle felt compelled to prove himself on his own. He had taken flight training in Texas during World War II, "and I thought it would be glamorous to come back and engage in the oil and gas business, so I did."
"And has it been glamorous for you?" I ask him, and Dottie gives a sardonic laugh. But Earle says, "Yes, now and then, and there's a lot of ups, and there have been a lot of downs." The Craigs have invited me to their home, and, although it is the middle of a weekday, Earle is wearing a pink dress shirt with cuff links. Dottie is wearing Ferragamo shoes and black slacks and a dusty blue sweater. She is lovely and elegant, with white hair and hip glasses, a displaced WASP in the grit of West Texas. Bloom where you're planted and all that, but thank God they keep the apartment in Manhattan and the home in Nantucket.
When they arrived in Midland in 1950, says Earle, "It was one of the worst droughts of the century, and we frequently had sandstorms where literally you could just barely see across the street."
And Dottie adds, "You could write your name in dust on the dining room table. We didn't have a dryer. And we had a baby. And I can remember my neighbor calling me because she had lived in Midland much longer than me, to let me know that a sandstorm was coming and I had to rush and get my diapers off the laundry line." Their parents thought they were real frontier people. Her father, the doctor, thought her baby would be delivered by an Indian squaw, and he was only partially joking.
Dottie Craig wasn't the only one who cried. Even women from other parts of Texas found Midland forbidding. Lynn Munn, a friend of Laura's who grew up in Dallas, remembers coming home from grocery shopping one day, her two small children in tow, and finding a tumbleweed "the size of a Volkswagen Beetle" blocking her front door. She burst into tears. Mary Ann Ryerson, who grew up with Laura, said her mother wept through the entire first year she lived in Midland, after moving away from the water of Corpus Christi.
Such rugged conditions certainly fostered bonds. Women could trade tips on how best to get dust out of the house, and Lord, that alone could be a full-time job. Hearing these stories, I began to think that Laura Bush's shelf-Cloroxing was less compulsive than pragmatic. The dirt and the wind and the heat and the dryness that bake your skin and make your throat ache, the lack of shade, and above all else, the isolation all conspire to make West Texans a breed apart. When I asked Robert McCleskey if Midlanders were different, he leaned back in his wooden office chair and considered. "Oh, wellllll, I guess," he drawled. "We don't have trees, and we don't have water. We don't know how to swim, and we can't climb a tree. That makes us different."
Folks were, and are, friendly to most outsiders and quick to engage them in conversation. They're eager to have someone new bring them stories of some other place. In Midland, when somebody asks "How ya dewin?," answering "Okay" is considered impolite. It tags you as ignorant at best, stuck-up at worst. The proper answer always is: "I'm doing fine, thank you for asking. How you dewin?" It is an exchange that typifies a culture of conversation and caring for each other. Folks in Midland reserve their fiercest loyalty for each other. They know each other, and protect each other, and comfort each other, and each other's kin. Despite racial divides, there is a continuity through the town and a way of papering over any real conflicts with politeness. Like those pioneers dancing in front of the covered wagon in the nineteenth century, Midlanders have to make their own fun and tend to their own troubles, be it the drought that kills the cattle or the well that goes dry or the entire oil economy that sputters to a halt. You can never count on the money, although the giddy tried, and left a trail of foreclosed houses, repossessed Rolls-Royces, planes, and yachts behind them. Often, a man's financial failure is perceived as having nothing to do with his business acumen. No, a man can go from boom to bust and back again, yanked about by forces completely outside his control. Life can be an accident of luck or disaster, Midland tells itself, and the only dependable elements are families and friends and the Lord.
To this day, Laura Bush's closest friends are the women she knew in grade school Regan Gammon, Jan O'Neill, Peggy Porter Weiss, Marge Petty, Jane Ann Fontenot. There wasn't much for girls in the small-town Texas culture that formed them. Elsewhere in America, during Laura's high school years, women were agitating for equality. But in Midland, the 1964 Rebelee yearbook reflects the same old restricted paths for women. An article about the separate but equal vocational training for the genders is headlined "Future Wives, Shop Students Try Special Schools." And the accompanying photograph bears the caption: "Home Ec girls, realizing the way to their future husbands' hearts, try out their cooking skills." Laura wasn't in that picture, but Jenna Welch, remembering her only child's early years, dutifully recalled, "She liked to cook, as all little girls do." In Laura's years of high school, girls primped and lay around on each other's beds, "listening to Ricky Nelson records," said Tobia Gunesch. There were many occasions that called for white gloves. They are in pictures in the Rebelee yearbook, at prom and cotillion and various debutante events. Life has changed for girls in Midland today, but there still isn't anything they can do that gets the 20,000 people screaming under the Friday night lights of high school football season. Except be a cheerleader, in service to the quarterback.
As first lady, Laura Bush is often portrayed as the more compassionate and emotionally nuanced partner in the White House. Her quieter, more reflective mien is served up to soften George Bush's sharper retorts, his quick judgments, his black-and-white morality. His critics portray him as overly arrogant, even swaggering, in the surety with which he declares his mission, especially in the area of foreign policy. Laura is seen as reining him in. When he evoked the Wild West with his insistence that Osama bin Laden would be brought in "dead or alive," Laura sidled up to her husband and said pointedly, if softly, "Bushie, are you gonna git 'em?" This was her way of toning down his Texas cowboy rhetoric, reminding him how poorly it would play across the nation. In point of fact, though, Laura is the one with the real Texas credo, much more of a product of Midland and its ethos than her husband, who was sent to prep school in Connecticut and summered on the craggy Maine coast among the old-moneyed families.
0 It takes about fifteen minutes to drive from what somebody with some swagger named the Midland International Airport and into downtown. In that time, you can place your unborn baby or come to Jesus or pawn your valuables, as instructed by the billboards along Highway 20. Back when Laura was growing up in the modest three-bedroom rancher on Humble Avenue where her mother still lives, folks liked to say that you raised hell in Odessa, but you raised your family in Midland. Over and over, when Laura and her girlfriends have obliged interviewers with an account of their upbringing, they mention the same things: the freedom they had as children and teenagers; the simplicity of routine; the love they felt from community. In this version of the town's life, "You were free to ride your bike anywhere and go all around town by yourself," Laura said, and she and Regan and Peggy would pedal over to the Rexall drugstore for cherry Cokes. In high school, the girls would pile into one car and stop by Agnes's, one of the local drive-ins. "There were at least five girls in the car every time we went out cruising," said Peggy Porter Weiss, who now owns an of-the-moment restaurant in Austin. "We liked Kent cigarettes and would be down on the floor in the back of the car smoking." In this carefully pruned tale of conventional girlhood, there were the slumber parties and the dancing around the room in sock feet. Laura loved to dance, and she had lots of records. When Regan got a copy of Meet the Beatles, "we played that album over and over again," says Weiss. "Regan liked Paul, I liked John, and I think Laura liked all of them."
There were three movie theaters downtown, and three drive-ins, and the teenagers went to those drive-ins a lot on double dates. Sometimes, they would sneak in beer. "If you had a cheapskate date, he would put you in the trunk," recalls Ryerson, to avoid the price of a ticket. The biggest concern was "making sure your mom didn't smell your vodka breath," says Gunesch.
"You didn't hear about anything terribly wild," says Ryerson. "Boys would go to Mexico and find some whorehouses over the border. And since Midland was dry, you had to go to Odessa, find somebody's older brother to be your rum-runner. But there was always a way I remember one spot where you were supposed to be able to buy beer with your library card."
And life in Midland in the 1960s seemed freed of the strictures of, if not race, certainly of status and class and money. The oil roughnecks and laborers lived over there in hard-drinking Odessa, leaving Midland proper for the operators and engineers and those who supported the business side of the oil and gas industry the insurance agents, the draftsmen, the merchants, the car dealers, the home builders. Kids ran in different packs, but their boundaries seemed permeable. You might not be in the most popular group, but you would be invited along to the party just the same.
"Midland had a definite little hierarchy," said Jane Fontenot, now a certified nurse midwife in Berkeley, California. Their group "was a little bit more studious, but we weren't the real brainy group. Our little group was just not quite as anxious to fit in and be that popular. We were a little bit more out there, a little bit more adventurous and experimental."
Laura was one of the popular girls who dated a lot, "kind of a late bloomer type, I guess," says McCleskey, who went to Midland High. "You know, there were always a few girls you went to school with, didn't pay attention to, and one day you looked up and said, Damn! Where'd she come from! Where'd she been?
"You knew everybody from church, or we boys bumped into each other playing ball in the summer," adds McCleskey, who has been eating lunch with the same group of men going on thirty years. When he was young, the accountant never sorted people by their financial assets. Even the swimming pool, that most delicious of accoutrements, seemed sorted by gender rather than affordability. "The girls seemed to have the pools. For some reason, the boys didn't," he recalled. "Not everybody had cars. In our generation, I can still remember when my folks became a two-car family, and I can remember thinking, 'Boy, we must've made it.' I remember my mother driving downtown to drop my father off to work, and picking him back up in the evening. If you wanted the car, that was what you had to do."
Money didn't really matter among their set that had some, because no matter how much of it you had, there was nothing to do anyway but go to the movies or ride lazily around sneaking smokes or spin records in each other's rec rooms. "You never really knew who had it or not," recalls Ryerson. "Probably our parents knew. You really didn't think about it. You didn't really even know what anybody's parents did. It wasn't that big a deal. My dad was in the oil business and lived below his means because he came from the Depression, and he knew it was feast or famine in the oil business. I can remember during the boom years of the 1980s, coming back home and hearing him tell me, 'These people buying Mercedeses now they're going to be sorry.'
"There was just nothing to do, so it wasn't like money kept you out or in."
In a way that sounds almost false in this status-conscious time, Midland kids really did like each other for who they were, rather than what they had. It was "remarkable because there was so little to do. Personal relationships took on more importance," said Fontenot. "Perhaps that's why people are so loyal to each other." They had grown up knowing each other all their lives, and even now, the ones who left because of the town's smallness and isolation still yearn for its sense of community. Of her girlhood, says Laura herself, "Mostly, I think I remember a feeling of being really sheltered."
There was certainly trouble in the world, but that news seemed so far away, so removed from life at Lee High School. In the beginning of November 1963, the Midland Reporter-Telegram, which cost 5 cents, carried front-page stories about the assassination of the president of South Vietnam and his brother and a freak accident in Indianapolis that had killed sixty-two watching an ice show at the local fairgrounds. "An explosion hurled flames and concrete slabs as large as pianos" through the watching crowd, the story said, and "bodies, many still wrapped in mink, erupted onto the ice." And at least once a week, there were stories about the gas and oil industry that are unintelligible to the outsider but not the oil and gas men who smoked their cigarettes and played their bid whist at the Petroleum Club: "Socony Mobil Oil Company Inc. No. 1 George K. Mitchell Terrell County Prospect 29 miles north of Dryden is testingthe upper and lower Strawn through perforations. Earlier, the lower Strawn section at 11,630-670 feet had flowed gas the max rate of 3 million cubic feet daily, through a 1/2 inch choke for an unreported period of time."
On the day the newspaper listed the pallbearers for the funeral of Michael Douglas, it also carried a story many in Midland found more ominous: The University of Texas regents had voted unanimously to integrate college athletics, the first Southwest Conference school to do so. The ruling was "to remove all student restrictions of every kind and character based on race or color."
What Laura Bush never mentions in her accounts of growing up in Midland not in interviews nor in all the speeches she has given as first lady of Texas and the United States to commemorate Martin Luther King Day is that she grew up in a time and place where segregation ruled completely. Many politicians reach back to their upbringing and excavate some detail of discord that propelled them to action. George Bush doesn't call upon Midland in that way, and neither does Laura. For them, Midland is always that place where people had only good values. It is an odd view of America, to look back on this town and see it as a paradise without mentioning this shame. In those tales of high school hijinks at Agnes's Drive-In, no one mentions that Agnes was a stubborn old racist woman, who never let blacks near her business. The history of race and bias in Texas may seem well worn now, but its grip on Midland is uglier and more persistent than elsewhere. Even now, the Ku Klux Klan likes to boast that it gets plenty of financial support from dependable members in Midland. Even now, some people look away, their mouths tightening with disapproval, when they see an interracial couple holding hands on the street. Even now, the race wars of the 1960s are still being fought, this time in political resistance to bond issues that would add funds for a school district that is now more than 50 percent black and Hispanic.
For Laura and her friends growing up, brown people and black people seemed nonexistent. They seemed invisible. "I went off to Stanford, and I remember people saying, 'Oh, you must be prejudiced, you're from Texas, you must not like black people,'" recalls Mary Ann Ryerson, who went to Lee with Laura and later became a bilingual teacher in the Houston school district. "And I would say, 'Oh, gosh, I don't really know any.' The only person you knew was your maid. And some people had a Hispanic maid and some people had a black maid. And the caddies at the country club, who were all black. At Lee High School, I don't even think there were any Hispanics. They were at Midland High." At Stanford, she came across strident students working to register blacks as part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, and was amazed. "It was a whole new world," she says.
Steve Buck remembers working during high school to hire wetbacks "that's just what we called them then, before we knew better," he says to pick cotton. "In fact, in my first job, I made more money in high school in Midland, Texas, than I did my first few years of school teaching, because there was so much more money out here. If you could speak a little bit of Spanish, you could get eight or ten of them to come work for you, and you'd hire them out to the farmer and he'd pay and you were the middle guy you'd make money. We were all doing that in high school. They couldn't line up work otherwise. I was sixteen, and one summer, I had about fifteen of them working for me at one time. And I was paying them seventy cents an hour, and I was charging the farmer ninety cents. So I was making 20 cents off each one of them per hour. You know, you would never think about doing that today. But in those days, that was kind of the deal."
When he graduated from Lee High School in 1969 and went to the University of North Texas, "that was the first time I'd ever seen a black in school or been around a black. And I remember I didn't know what to call them properly. Out here, everybody had five or six different names for blacks. You had niggers, you had nigras, you had coloreds, you had colored boys and then I got over to college and I heard the term for the first time Afro-American. But in the 1960s, Midland was not even like the rest of the South. A lot of places, even in Fort Worth, might have a colored section, colored water fountains, colored restrooms. Not in Midland. You had nothing. They just did not eat in restaurants," he said. The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City were memorable to those in Midland not for John Carlos and Tommie Smith and their black power salute on the medal stand, but because Midland native Doug Russell beat out Mark Spitz to win the gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly.
But the adults of Midland had noticed warily what was going on, and plenty of them had complained and resisted. In the voting booth, they defeated civil rights supporter Lyndon Baines Johnson every single time he appeared on the ballot. When Laura Welch and George W. Bush were attending San Jacinto Junior High School, a social studies teacher quit his job to run against Johnson for the U.S. Senate. He told his students he just couldn't stand by and "let LBJ ruin Texas." Such sentiment was not uncommon in the classroom among those charged with imparting civic values to youth. When the schools were finally integrated, fifteen years after Brown v. Board of Education struck down public school segregation, black students filed into Laura Welch's alma mater. Laura was in Houston, in her first year of teaching in a poor school. And back at Lee, one teacher took five desks and turned them toward the back wall of her classroom. She told her black students, "They told me I had to have you in here, but they didn't tell me I had to look at you."
On that afternoon when Lee Harvey Oswald climbed the stairs of the Texas Book Depository and took aim at President Kennedy, the usual crowd of businessmen and luncheoning ladies filled the dining room at Luigi's, one of the only fine restaurants in Midland at that time. Its owner heard the news crackle over the radio. Horrified, he figured he had an obligation to share the tragic report with his patrons. Over the public address system, he announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States has just been shot and seriously wounded in Dallas." There was a second of silence while the news registered, and then the diners burst into applause.
In this regard, George Bush, for all his claim to his roots in Texas, was growing up differently. The word nigger was not tolerated at his home; Barbara Bush once grew red with anger and smacked him when she heard him toss the term off to a bunch of his boyhood pals. And Bar did not restrict her ban on such language to her own domain. Earle and Dottie Craig, the well-bred immigrants, remember her confronting one of Midland's social stalwarts. "It was sewing circle," said Dottie. "One of the senior local ladies used the unforgivable word in front of a black servant in Bar's house," said Earle, "and Bar excoriated that woman, who was senior to her: 'Never. Do. That. Again.' "
"Bar really would not put up with that sort of thing," said Dottie, "which is very common in the South and isn't considered as objectionable as it is to those of us who grew up in the East."
The black population of Midland is and was small. During the 1960s, when the town had a population of about fifty thousand, perhaps five thousand blacks lived in the neighborhoods south of Florida Avenue. When I called to set up an appointment with Dr. Viola Coleman, a proud and determined physician still practicing in her eighties, who led the fight to desegregate the schools, she told me wryly: "Now, I'm black, so you know I live on the other side of the tracks." As I talked with other people around Midland, who were unfailingly helpful with questions about Laura, they always would ask where else I had been. And when I told them I had been over on Florida Avenue, their eyes would widen, and they would wonder what in heaven's name I could have been doing over there. Or they would look at me quizzically when I mentioned the spanking new Supermercado, with its tortilleria baking fresh tortillas daily on the premises and its shelves studded with calabaza and mangoes. It was a huge place, with bright purple and yellow walls, over past Big Spring Highway, but many in Midland seemed to have never noticed it, let alone gone inside. When I mentioned this to Dr. Coleman, she just smiled. "Even today, there are people who don't know there is anything past Big Spring," she said of the neighborhoods west of the highway, where the youngster George Bush once lived with his parents, that are now primarily Hispanic. "It is a community that remains invisible."
The adamant resistance to integration and civil rights was all the more remarkable in Midland because the small black population was generally undemanding. It was understood that black women would work in white women's homes, "seven days a week, cooking three meals a day," said Dr. Coleman, "and you went to church on Sunday evenings, because that was when you got to finally come home." The unrest the cross burnings and marches and riots that raced through the Deep South passed Midland by. Life for blacks centered around church and school just as it did for whites. George Washington Carver High School had its own fine marching band, its own football team, its own academic elites. As in much of the rest of America, segregation in Midland did impose a social structure on the black neighborhood. Unable to live and work among whites, black doctors and lawyers and restaurant and business owners became pillars of the local black community. And when some of those leaders finally began organizing a sit-in at a few of Midland's favorite lunch spots, the town's white business community was so eager to avert the spectacle of such an action that the restaurant owners, except for Agnes, quietly agreed to open their doors to blacks. And that was that. One day, Mary Ann Ryerson remembers, she and her mother were eating at Fuhr's cafeteria. And Mary Ann's mother whispered to her, "Look, some blacks are eating over there," at a nearby table. The girl nodded, a bit surprised. She had never noticed when black folks weren't eating at Fuhr's, and now she hadn't noticed when they were.
Of course, Laura and many of her contemporaries moved beyond Midland and its myopic view of minorities. By the time she went looking for work as a school librarian in Austin, Laura deliberately chose schools where she could serve a decidedly disadvantaged population of poor minority children. But as adults, her generation held on to the way they had related in high school. When Laura and George Bush hosted her high school class reunion at the Governor's Mansion in Austin in 1997, they threw open their doors to Laura's fellow graduates of Lee High School as well as to the members of the 1964 class of Midland High. Some five hundred people ate barbecue and drank Lone Star beer and twisted the night away, marveling how far the pretty girl with the twinkly smile had come. Nobody even thought to invite the members of the class of 1964 of Midland's third high school, all-black George Washington Carver. "Nobody even remembered," said someone who attended. "Isn't that incredible? Isn't that awful?"
After that final and traumatic year at Lee High School, punctured by the deadly and permanent consequences of a split-second error in judgment and the shocking assassination of a president, Laura Lane Welch left Midland behind. She was an only child who had grown self-assured. Her father, who made her laugh, and her mother, who tended her mind, had given her unconditional love, the most important quality parents can bestow upon a child, because it is the bedrock of self-confidence. She was the center of their attention without even having had to seek it, and that assurance would define all her subsequent relationships. Already, Laura had developed the reserve that made her difficult to describe. To casual acquaintances, her temperament seemed unremarkable. Years later, they would struggle to quantify her, and she would somehow elude them. They would say, with an apologetic shrug, "Laura is just Laura." She was not boring, or bland, but stable, and her natural tendency toward quietude had deepened after the fatal accident. She became a keen and careful listener, and friends would be taken aback when she brought up a fragment of something they had told her months before.
The Midland spirit "really has something to do with the landscape because the sky is so huge. There is a real feeling of unlimited possibilities here," she said, noting that the capricious oil business attracted risk-takers and optimists. But if the town sheltered her as a girl, it hemmed her in as a young woman. She would live in Houston and Dallas and Austin, and travel for weeks through Europe, growing more curious and questioning and opinionated with each successive year. And then, nearly fifteen years later, she would suddenly abandon her career and return, to construct for herself the conventional life of an upper-middle-class woman in Midland marriage, motherhood, housekeeping, charity work. If not for the outsized political aspirations of her husband, Laura Bush might be there still, and perfectly satisfied. Instead, her life underwent a startling transformation.
Copyright © 2004 by Ann Gerhart