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Laura Bush still worried about Afghan women, still loves books

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 20, 2010 - Surrounded by the books she loves so much, former First Lady Laura Bush regaled a sold-out crowd here Thursday night with stories of her past and her hopes for the future.

In an appearance aptly set at the St. Louis County Library's headquarters, Bush read portions of her new biography -- "Spoken from the Heart" -- to the packed crowd of 700, while offering observations on the White House, politics and just plain living.

Her book, she acknowledged, is a sort of love letter -- not only to her husband, former President George W. Bush, and her family -- but also to her hometown and state of Midland, Texas.

She painted a portrait of western Texas that is tough and beautiful, and of people who've adjusted to a "hard scrabble life" amid striking scenery, and severe weather. The contrasts, she said, helped create a people who are self-sufficient and generous, with blunt talk that can hurt and illuminate.

The book already has attracted buzz because Bush, for the first time in public, recounts the fatal car accident that occurred when she was 17, killing one of her high-school friends. She acknowledges that she was the driver, had been distracted by her passengers, and then driven through a stop sign. Her car struck another vehicle, killing a friend at the wheel.

She also writes about her suspicions that her husband and other members of the U.S. entourage may have been poisoned at a G8 summit.

Bush didn't read from either chapter, choosing instead portions that focused on Midland, her swift courtship and marriage, and her observations about life after the White House.

To capture more accurately the color and contrasts of Texas, and to avoid over-editing, Bush said she dictated her thoughts into a tape recorder to be transcribed.

If she'd typed the book -- like her husband is doing with his, due out in the fall -- Bush said she feared she'd get too concerned with correcting her phrasing and grammar, and end up with a stilted product.

She displayed some of that Texas bluntness during the question-and-answer session, when moderator Debbie Monterrey asked what advice she might give to the current woman in the White House, Michelle Obama.

"I don't have any,"  Bush said. "I don't think she really wants advice." Amid audience's laughter, she added that Michelle Obama "hasn't called me."

She also touched off chuckles when she told about the "absolute cutoff" that confronts all outgoing presidents.

One day their desks are packed with papers, the next day they are empty, she said. "One day, you have all kinds of staff to do everything for you. The next day...." her voice intentionally trailed off, while the audience roared.

She recounted how, when the Bushes arrived back in Texas the afternoon of President Barack Obama's inauguration, she and her husband were "unloading our own luggage. George is putting the bikes in the garage."

But at times,  Bush also was deadly serious. She said she'll never forget sitting in Sen. Ted Kennedy's office when she first learned of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

And her chief political concerns, at present, appeared to revolve around the future in the Middle East and Afghanistan. She said she was confident that democracy can flourish, if the United States and its allies have patience and don't pull out their troops too early.

She is particularly concerned about the fate of women in Afghanistan, if the U.S. withdraws too soon. Bush told first-hand accounts of women who had their nails pulled out by the Taliban because they wore nail polish, or were beaten because their shoes were too noisy when they walked.

If the United States fails to persevere, "I hate to think of the gains that are being lost," Bush said. "I hope we continue to stand with the women there."

Domestically, though, she also emphasized her concern about young American boys and men. Women now make up a majority of students in graduate schools, she said, while during the economic downturn, "it's mainly men who have lost their jobs."

A former educator and librarian, Bush observed, "We never finish work on education. Every year, there's a new first grade."

Her appearance was aimed at benefiting youth of both genders. Most in the audience paid $90 for their tickets, which included two seats and a signed copy of her book.

After expenses, the money raised will help pay for a new teen center -- to be called the Laura Bush Teen Center, at the county library's Bridgeton Trails branch.

Mrs. Bush was thrilled by the news. It reflected what she called, in jest, her family's exciting " 'after' life."

No longer first lady, Bush said with a smile, "I can simply 'be.' "

In reply, the audience gave her a standing ovation.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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