The Calm amid the Storm: She Was a Quiet Librarian; He Was a Backslapper with a Taste for Politics. Their Marriage-And Laura Bush's Emerging Role

Newsweek, November 22, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Calm amid the Storm: She Was a Quiet Librarian; He Was a Backslapper with a Taste for Politics. Their Marriage-And Laura Bush's Emerging Role


He couldn't get her off his mind--or on the phone. It was the summer of 1977, and George W. Bush had just met Laura Welch at a dinner arranged by friends in Texas. For Bush, though, summer meant a trip to the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, for speed golf and speedboats. Laura had liked the hard-partying Houston bachelor well enough ("I thought he was very funny"), but for young Bush it was, in his words, "love at first sight." One problem: the reserved Laura rarely answered the phone, and when she did she said she was too busy to talk. So after a single frustrating day, Bush left Walker's Point, jumped on a plane and flew back to Texas. They were married three months later, his bachelor days at an end.

Since then, Laura Welch Bush has carried on as she began: by calming her exuberant, sometimes intemperate husband. She is mom to twin girls, Jenna and Barbara, seniors at Austin High. She works with an architect on the design of the contemporary limestone house the Bushes plan to build next year on their new ranch between Dallas and Austin. Her almost preternatural placidity is an important asset to Bush: she's determined not to let the presidential campaign make her--or him--crazy.

It won't be easy. Her husband is under attack for foreign-policy naivete. Debates are looming. John McCain is gaining in New Hampshire. Laura's role is less tactical than, say, Hillary Clinton's was in her husband's races; Mrs. Bush instead seems to provide the governor with a comfort zone. She's already waved off questions about whether Bush is experienced enough to be president. "She has taken it all in stride," says Regan Gammon, Laura's friend since fourth grade. "She knows how smart he is." Laura takes the long view. "The campaign is anxiety-provoking, there's no doubt about it," she says. "What I remember from the '92 election is waking up every morning and feeling anxious when George went out to get the newspaper. I'd think, 'What's it going to be today?' I'm certainly aware that we could get to that, but this time it's easier to slough off. I think when it's your parents, it's harder, just like it would be if it were your child." Former president Bush understands what Laura does for his eldest son: "Golly," says George Bush Sr., "she sure can calm him down."

Laura seems to have learned it early. "She was just born a nice quiet little kiddo," says her mother, Jenna Welch, now 80, of her only child. Laura's father, Harold, was a warm man who was a regular at Saturday-afternoon gatherings at the Sick Pig, a barbecue place where the local honchos bet on Sunday's football games. He made a good living putting up spec housing during the oil boom; Jenna kept the books and read to her daughter "from the time she could open her eyes." Home life centered on the First Methodist Church and high-school football games. As a child she arranged her dolls into a little classroom and lectured them; at Southern Methodist University she got a degree in education and pledged Theta, the smart, good-looking girls' sorority. "She would never have done any protesting, or all that other '70s stuff," says friend Jan O'Neill.

What made the quiet librarian ultimately fall for the backslapping businessman and would-be pol? …

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