On January 20, 2009, first lady Laura Bush and her husband, President George W. Bush, boarded a helicopter at Andrews Air Force base, closing the chapter on his two terms at the White House. In those eight years, the former schoolteacher and librarian from West Texas became one of the most popular first ladies to ever grace the biggest political stage in the world.
Now, Laura is telling her story in her new memoir, Spoken from the Heart. In the book, she reveals what she's never been able to say about the painful criticism of her husband, her fears after September 11 and the truth about her husband's drinking.
Laura was born in Midland, Texas, a small town of 30,000 where everyone knew each other's name. An only child, Laura says she longed for a brother or sister. "My mother had three miscarriages after she had me. They were really live births. They were early. They were named babies," she says. "I knew what a sadness it was for them that they didn't have more children."
A self-professed homebody, Laura says life at home was happy and she loved spending time with her parents. "I think it shaped me in a lot of ways. They were very stable. They loved each other very much," she says. "It's a huge advantage to grow up in a family like that—parents who are interested in parenting who have a stable life and love each other. And I was very assured I was loved."
When Laura was 17, tragedy struck. While on the way to a drive-in movie, Laura accidentally ran a stop sign, striking another vehicle. The other driver—a good friend of Laura's named Mike Douglas—was killed instantly. Though the accident was made public knowledge during her husband's 2000 presidential campaign, Laura has never revealed how that night shaped her life until now.
Laura remembers the night of November 6, 1963, clearly. "I'd just turned 17 two days before, and it was a week night, but we had a school holiday the next day," she says. "So I'd picked up my good friend [Judy], and we were going to go to the movie."
The road Laura drove was a dark, two-lane highway. "[I] didn't see the stop sign until it was too late," she says. "I just went on into the intersection. And it's a very quiet intersection. It's a terrible tragedy that there did happen to be another car coming at that moment."
Laura hit the other car and was thrown from her vehicle. Judy remained in the car. There were no seat belts in the car. "I was in my father's big, heavy Chevrolet Impala, and my friend who happened to be in the other car—but I didn't know at the moment that it was my friend—was in a much smaller Corvair," she says. "So I got up off the ground and Judy got out of the car, and we know that whoever was in the car was lying over quite a distance."
Dazed and injured, Laura says she saw another car drive up to the scene. A man got out and tended to the injured driver. She says she thought she recognized him as Mr. Douglas, the father of her friend Mike. "Judy, my friend, kept saying: 'I think that's Mr. Douglas. I think that's the father of whoever is [lying] there," she says. "And I said, 'Well, no, it couldn't be.'"
Laura says it never occurred to her that the other driver could be her good friend. "In my mind, I prayed the whole time: ... 'Please, God. Please, God. Please, God.'"
At the emergency room, Laura's room was separated from Mike's by a curtain. "I heard Miss Douglas come in, and I could hear Mrs. Douglas crying," she says. "I really knew then, but I just hoped against hope that that was not the case."
When she got home, Laura's parents confirmed her worst fears—Mike was the driver and he was dead. "Then I did what I think maybe people did then in West Texas, which is really sort of never talked about it again."
Although she wanted to attend Mike's funeral, Laura says she stayed home. "I could tell my parents really didn't want me to go, ... but my friends all went, of course. This was a loss that was huge for all," she says. "It was reported when [the story] first came out in 2000 that he was my boyfriend. But he wasn't my boyfriend. He was just a really close friend of mine."
To this day, Laura regrets that she never spoke with the Douglas family. "Mother and Daddy went because they knew the Douglases. And they went the next day with some mutual friends of mother's and the Douglases," she says. "I don't know if they just then never suggested that I go over because they knew how difficult it would be for me. I thought that it would be difficult for the Douglases that, 'Why would they ever want to see me again?'"
Laura says she never received counseling after the accident. "No one ever suggested that and really no one ever really talked about it," she says. "Even Mother and Daddy didn't talk about it."
Laura and Mike had many mutual friends, and Laura says they remained supportive of her throughout the healing process. "One of the boys who had been a pallbearer at Mike's funeral, one of our good friends, called me right afterward to ask if he could nominate me for the court," she says. "That was a really very sweet sort of [offer of forgiveness.]"
Once Laura became a mother, she says she recognized the deep loss the Douglases must have felt. "Barbara and Jenna had a few very close friends, too, who died in car accidents and one who committed suicide, and we went [to their homes] immediately," she says. "I knew that those parents would have wanted Barbara and Jenna there. ... They still do. They still would want to be with Barbara and Jenna and all their children's other friends because that keeps their own child alive."
Since the accident became public, Laura has received many letters from people in similar accidents. Laura says she has two pieces of advice for those people: Find someone to talk to and realize you'll never forget what happened. "It's with you forever," she says. "I felt guilty for my whole life."
After high school, Laura earned a degree in education from Southern Methodist University and a master's in library science from the University of Texas. She moved to Austin and worked as a school librarian when she reconnected with a classmate from the past—George W. Bush.
Growing up in Midland, George and Laura's families lived about 10 blocks from one another. They attended different elementary schools, but were classmates for one year in junior high school. "I saw him in the 7th grade, and he also had that kind of very loving family," she says. "He moved to Houston in the 8th grade."
In 1977, mutual friends introduced George and Laura at a backyard barbecue, and Laura says she felt like she had known George all her life. "We both lived in Houston after college when we were single at the same apartment complex but never ran into each other. So it really was like we had grown up in these parallel lives and that we were meant for each other somehow," she says. "When we did meet, we had so many of the same friends. A lot of his best friends from elementary school had been my best friends in junior high and high school, and so it really was like we had known each other our whole lives."
Three months later, George and Laura, both 31, were married at her childhood church in Midland. A mother of one of her friends proclaimed that "the most eligible bachelor in Midland is marrying the old maid of Midland."
Laura says she just laughed at the comment, as she's really four months younger than her husband. "All our friends were married. George and I were literally the last ones of all of our friends. That's why we had to marry each other, I guess," she jokes.
The ceremony was small, simple and intimate. "We were the older couple at 31 getting married, and of course we'd both been in lots of weddings with lots of bridesmaids and so we didn't have any," she says. "We were thrilled to find each other."
One of the myths written about her marriage, Laura says, is that she gave her husband an ultimatum to stop drinking. "I never said the line, 'It's either Jim Beam or me.' I was not going to leave George, and I wasn't going to let him leave me with twins," she says. "Our marriage was enduring. We loved each other, and we were two people who did not have divorce in our DNA. But I was disappointed, and I let him know that I thought he could be a better man."
In their Texas social circle, Laura says drinking was an accepted activity. "We had a very active social life," she says. "Everyone drank a lot. George certainly wasn't the only one, and a lot of women drank a lot, too."
Laura says she noticed George's drinking habits when the twins were young. "I knew that George was drinking too much. And I knew that he didn't want to do that," she says. "That's not really his personality. George is very, very disciplined."
The former president quit drinking cold turkey after a 40th birthday celebration with friends in Colorado Springs. "George just woke up and knew he wanted to quit," she says. "And he stopped."
Laura says her talk with George helped, but it was a combination of things that put an end to the drinking. "We had been in Maine the summer before and Billy Graham had been there, and George had had a long talk with Billy Graham," she says. "Some of our friends had started a men's Bible study that he went to. So I think it was a culmination of all of those [things]—of maturing, of finding yourself at 40 years old and thinking about, 'What do you really want?'"
The defining moment of George W. Bush's presidency was the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Laura says she was just as affected as every other American that terrible day.
Laura was en route to the Capitol building to brief a Senate committee about early childhood education that fateful morning. "As I got into the car, my detail leader, [a] Secret Service agent, leaned over and said a plane has just flown into the World Trade Center," she says. "We thought at first that it was just some very strange accident, and then before we got to the Capitol, we got word on the second plane, so we knew then that it was not an accident but, instead, was an attack."
The night of September 11, Laura finally reunited with her husband in the bunker of the White House. "I don't remember what we said. I don't even know if we said anything," she says. "I remember that we hugged each other, and we knew everything had changed. Everything for our country had changed, but everything had changed for us. His presidency had changed totally."
Though Secret Service agents advised the couple to sleep in the bunker, Laura says the president wanted to sleep in his own bed. "George said, 'I've got to get sleep,'" she says. "'But you can come get us if you think you have to.'"
That night, Laura and the president were awakened by security. "I heard footsteps and rapid breathing out in the hall and an agent ran in the room and said: 'You've got to go back downstairs. There's another plane coming,'" she says. "So George and I jumped up, and I didn't put on my contacts because I didn't have time to. So then George had to hold my hand as I blindly made my way down."
The first couple picked up their pets along the way. "Spot ran," she says. "I think George carried Barney and I had Kitty, and we went down to the bunker."
By the time they arrived to safety, Laura says they found out it was all a false alarm. "They said the plane was one of ours," she says. "Those fighter jets that flew over Washington and flew over a lot of big cities."
Like many American families, Laura says she and her loved ones were anxious after September 11. "We would just be watching pro football on television and there would be a huge stadium full. It would cross your mind, 'Oh, I hope there isn't something there,' and that went on for a long time," she says. "It went on for us probably longer than even it did for other people just because George was still reading the threat reports every day and we were so aware, and he was so determined to not have another terrorist attack on our country."
Laura says she brought in a minister and Colin Powell's wife, Alma, to help relieve any anxiety felt by White House staffers, some of whom were told to run for their lives on September 11."I would say it subsided in that we weren't afraid every single day," she says. "As George said, he thinks the president prays instead of, 'Let's make this happen,' [it's] 'God, please don't let anything happen today.'"
Laura says she and the president wanted people to resume their normal lives and even allowed their daughters to fly commercially to Washington the weekend after the attacks. "We knew that the planes were fine, and George didn't want to take this huge hit to the economy. It was bad enough having the terrorist attack," she says. "He wanted people to go about their own lives. And I knew from just a mental health point of view ... that it's really important to get to a routine."
Now out of public office, the president and Laura have renewed their treasured routines. Every morning, President Bush brings Laura a cup of coffee. "He's had to get back into the habit now of actually making it," she says. "He kind of had a little bit of trouble—it had been a while since he had made coffee with a coffee machine."
Still, life hasn't slowed down for the Bushes since leaving the White House. Between private speaking engagements, writing their own books and settling into their new Dallas home, Laura says their schedules are as packed as ever. "We're still very busy, but we don't have the hypervigilance and the anxiety that comes along with living in the White House," she says. "It's been great to be back home in Texas. I say I'm living the afterlife now, and George says he's living it in the Promised Land."
Laura says hearing what others said about her husband was the hardest part of being first lady. "It's discouraging for people who think about running for office to see the way our office holders, people who run for president or other offices, are treated by the other side—whoever the other side is at the time—and by the media," she says. "[The media looks] for the gotcha kind of story rather than a story that really represents how you really are or how all the people are that serve there. So I'm sorry it's like that."
Jenna and Barbara Bush started college the year their father was elected. Now 28, they say no one knows their dad like they do.
Jenna says she always ignored criticism of her father and knew none of the jokes or cable show round tables ever captured her father's true spirit. "We knew who he was, ... so we just ignored whatever anybody would say," she says. "We know our dad, and we know how lovely a man and how funny and how much he put us first always and how we want to emulate that when we have kids."
They were born into a political dynasty, but Barbara and Jenna credit their parents with keeping them grounded. "We've got really normal parents," Jenna says. "They really instilled the important things—family and friends and service."
Today, Barbara is the founder of Global Health Corps, a nonprofit working to improve medical care in the United States and Africa. Like her mom, Jenna became an elementary school teacher—and also serves as an education correspondent for NBC's Today.
Both women say their parents never pressured them to be part of the political scene. "They never asked us to do anything. Everything that we did was because we wanted to," Jenna says. "I think they wanted us to be normal, and they said over and over again: 'This is our decision. We've chosen to serve our country in this way, and we don't want it to impede on your lives,' which it didn't."
Barbara says it's because of Laura that she and Jenna are now pursuing their passions. "Growing up, my mom was very aware of what we were interested in," Barbara says. "When we were in high school and my mom just sort of put these ideas in front of us that she thought we would be interested in, and we totally were and just grabbed it and ran with it."
Laura says she always wanted her girls to find their own paths. "I remember when George was thinking about running for president and Jenna and George had a talk on the little back garden of the governor's mansion and Jenna said, 'You're going to ruin my life,'" she says. "And George said, 'Jenna, your mother and I are living our lives, and we raised you and Barbara to live your lives.' And we really did. And they've done it. They've just been so terrific."
On May 11, 2008, Jenna married Henry Hager at a ceremony on her parents' ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Jenna says her mom's advice helped her find a perfect match. "She said [to] find somebody that you love to be with and that you have the same hobbies as, and Henry and I love to do all the same things," she says. "We love to hike. We love to eat. We love books. And so being with him is really, really easy."
A typical day at the Crawford ranch is filled with family and music. "My parents turn on music—old country usually, or my mom's a secret Rastafarian, so Bob Marley," she says. "Somebody cooks dinner, and we sit around and we talk and we laugh and we do puzzles and we get in bed by 9."
Jenna and Barbara know a few things for sure about their mom—she's a neat freak who's not afraid to remake a bed if the hospital corners aren't right. And, she arranges her books according to the Dewey Decimal system.
Still, the twins say reading their mother's book has taught them so much more about their mother. "I was just surprised how candid she was because she's a really private person. In fact, we didn't learn many of these things until we read the book," Jenna says. "Some of the things, like the car accident, she didn't tell us until we were almost 18, I think."
Barbara says reading the book has been an emotional experience. "It's just been so much fun to read about my mom's life and read about her growing up and getting to know our great-grandparents that we never had an opportunity to meet," she says. "It's been a very great gift for us."