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Glimpses of the Bushes

LAURA:

America's First Lady, First Mother

By Antonia Felix

Adams Media Corporation, $19.95, 278 pp

AMBLING INTO HISTORY:

The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush

By Frank Bruni

HarperCollins, $23.95, 224pp

Reviewed by ELIZABETH BENNETT

Laura Bush has long been a mystery to people trying to write about her. A private person consistently wary around reporters, she has revealed little of herself and has rarely expressed her opinions in interviews both as first lady of Texas and first lady of the nation.

Unfortunately, Laura: America's First Lady, First Mother, a lightweight, syrupy biography that relies mostly on interviews with the subject's mother and old press clippings, sheds little light on that mystery. The book covers Mrs. Bush's background in Midland, Texas, where she grew up, her career as a teacher and librarian, her devotion to her husband and twin daughters, her love of children and reading and her support of books and authors. However, there's little here that's new - and, disappointingly, author Antonia Felix offers few clues to what makes this steadfastly unknowable woman tick.

In fact, readers interested in gaining any insight at all into the first lady would be better served to turn to a recently published book about her husband: Frank Bruni's Ambling into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush. Full of firsthand observations and interviews with George W. Bush and the people surrounding him, this highly readable book provides us a glimpse into the personalities of both Laura and George.

Bruni also helps explain what motivates the president and why he sometimes acts so goofy.

A New York Times reporter who covered Bush's presidential campaign and first eight months in office, Bruni focuses primarily on that presidential campaign in Ambling into History. Using amusing anecdotes that never made it into his news stories, he portrays the president _ and the first lady _ as more introspective and intelligent than they often appear in the media. He also provides some informed speculation on why a man who initially seemed so ill-prepared for the job has turned into one of the most interesting U.S. presidents in decades.

Bush's qualifications were often questioned during the campaign not only because of such bloopers as his promise to help Americans "put food on your family" but also because of his shocking knowledge gap in international affairs. During his months with the presidential candidate, however, Bruni began to see a different Bush _ a spiritual man of more seriousness and depth than he showed the world _ and Bruni started to question his own early assumptions.

He finally became convinced that with the events of Sept. 11, Bush, who demonstrated patience and flexibility in his handling of the crisis, proved himself to be a capable leader.

On the campaign trail, Bush traveled with his own pillow, drank non-alcoholic beer (he gave up liquor at age 40), ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and constantly wooed reporters covering him, even coming up with nicknames, Bruni reports. Bruni became "Frankie Boy" or "Panchito," a Spanish derivative of Frank.

Male reporters around the candidate got touched a lot, though Bush was more careful with women: "He pinched our cheeks or gently slapped them, in an almost grandmotherly, aren't-you-adorable way," writes Bruni. "At least twice, on the campaign plane, I felt someone's hands closing tight on my throat and turned around to see the outstretched arms of the future president of the United States, a devilish and delighted gleam in his eyes."

Why such antics? According to Bruni, George W. Bush learned early in life that clowning around was a good way to get attention.

As the oldest son, George W. Bush lived with the burden of George senior's "formidable accomplishments, dutifully and worshipfully following his father's path, first to Andover, then Yale, then the oil business. Every stage of the way, he never quite managed to match his father's success," Bruni points out.

But the elder Bush was a loving, supportive dad, and by all accounts, he never gave his children reason to doubt themselves, adds Bruni. In fact, all the Bushes believe in "their intrinsic goodness and fitness for leadership," says Bruni, and are taken aback at any questioning of their motives.

The author does acknowledge the difficulty of staying objective about a candidate who took every opportunity to try to charm reporters. He explores this problem of campaign coverage, noting that at one point reporters felt so exploited they no longer agreed to keep Bush's extended banter sessions with them off the record.

The author also examines the oversimplification and "groupthink" in the news media's coverage of campaigns and political figures, confessing that reporters sometimes manufacture arguments between candidates to give their stories more punch.

An evenhanded book, Ambling into History should appeal to liberals and conservatives alike. Readers of any political persuasion can enjoy, for example, the insights Bruni provides about the women in President Bush's life.

The president mother? Barbara Bush, says Bruni is "easy to understand, and consistent in her benignly malicious (or were they maliciously benign?) ways. (She) knew, for example, to smile and laugh innocently while eviscerating someone." Laura Bush, on the other hand, was more of a mystery to Bruni. He discovered, however, that, more than anyone else, she was able to keep her husband's cockiness in check. There's one anecdote that he relates, in fact, that provides more insight into George's wife than Antonia Felix's entire biography. It took place on the campaign plane. A playful George W. was getting carried away with reporters when Laura Bush piped up.

"Rein it in, Bubba," she told her husband.

And George W. Bush, future president, did just that.

Elizabeth Bennett is a freelance writer in Houston.

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