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  •  Fred Greenstein, Princeton University Professor of Politics
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Laura Bush: A supportive but behind-the-scenes spouse

"I saw a[n] elegant beautiful woman who turned out not only to be elegant and beautiful, but very smart and willing put up with my rough edges. And I must confess, [she] has smoothed them off over time." -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush on his wife Laura.

ATLANTA (CNN) -- A reluctant political wife, Laura Bush would be a first lady who reflects her teaching roots by promoting reading but she is highly unlikely to take on a public policy role.

The former Laura Welch married George W. Bush after a three-month courtship when both were 31. Immediately after they were married, Bush began his first political campaign for Congress, which he ultimately lost. She made him promise that she would never have to give a speech, a promise that has long since been broken.

She was not enthusiastic for her husband to re-enter politics as a candidate due to a wariness about public life and the demands it would place on her family, especially with regard to the privacy of their two daughters. But she was supportive of her husband's decision to seek the Texas governor's office in 1994 after he convinced her that he wasn't running simply to fulfill a family legacy.

As the first lady of Texas, she grew more comfortable with the spotlight. And while she had a similar reluctance over her husband's presidential bid, she has campaigned for him while trying to keep a semblance of a normal life for herself and her family.

A brief courtship

An only child, Laura was born in Midland, Texas, in 1946 to Harold and Jenna Welch. Her father was a successful real estate developer while her mother kept the books. Harold Welch died in 1995 while Jenna Welch still lives in Midland.

Laura apparently went to school with her future husband when they were children as he spent most of his formative years in Midland while his father was in the oil business. The two went to separate elementary schools but attended junior high together for one year.

Her late adolescent years were marred by a tragedy that was not highly publicized until her husband's presidential run. When she was 17, Laura accidentally drove through a stop sign and hit a car driven by a high school friend. He was killed. No charges were filed in the accident.

After college, she and her future husband also lived in Houston at the same apartment complex, but apparently never crossed paths.

After graduating from Southern Methodist University with a bachelor's degree in education, she taught in public schools in Dallas, Houston and Austin. She also earned a master's degree in library science from the University of Texas at Austin, in 1974.

In June 1977, the two were introduced at a dinner thrown by mutual friends in Midland. Bush had moved back to Midland to enter the oil business after graduating with a master's in business administration from Harvard. Laura was working as a librarian and teacher in Austin, Texas. The two apparently hit it off immediately and were married three months later in Midland.

Raising a family

Laura apparently wasn't intimidated by her husband's large and well-known family. His father had already served as head of the Republican National Committee and the CIA at this point. One story that has been publicized is about a visit to the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Her husband's grandmother, Dorothy Walker Bush, known for her formidable presence and competitive spirit, asked Laura what she did and Laura replied, "I read," which apparently caught the matriarch off-guard. Other versions of the story have Laura telling her grandmother-in-law, "I read and I smoke." (Like her husband, Laura since has given up smoking.)

She has been credited with being a stabilizing influence on her husband and spurring her husband's well-publicized decision to quit drinking in 1986.

In 1981, Laura gave birth to fraternal twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna. The pregnancy was difficult because of twins but complicated further after she developed toxemia, which is a condition in which pregnant women develop high blood pressure.

But the girls were delivered successfully five weeks before their due date via a Caesarean section. They are named for their grandmothers. The Bushes generally have shielded their daughters from the media and the Texas press generally have left the girls alone. If elected, the Bushes are hopeful for similar treatment by the national media, who mostly avoided coverage of Chelsea Clinton at the request of her parents.

Barbara and Jenna attended Austin public schools since their father was elected governor in 1994. Now 18, they entered college this fall, Jenna at the University of Texas in Austin and Barbara at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. In choosing Yale, Barbara is following the path of her father, grandfather and great-grandfather, who all attended Yale.

Reading: A familiar issue for an ex-librarian

As first lady in Texas, Laura Bush has taken a low-profile role to promote a subject dear to any librarian's heart: reading. If she becomes first lady for the United States, she likely will pursue a similar role. "As first lady, I'll make early childhood development one of my priorities," she said in her speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention.

She'll be a sharp contrast to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was heavily involved in policy issues in the Clinton administration. Laura has declared publicly she has no interest in advising her husband on policy issues.

After her husband first was elected governor, she invited a group of Texas authors to read at an inaugural week event. She also helped create the Texas Book Festival, which has raised nearly $900,000 for 352 Texas public libraries in the past four years.

In 1996, Laura helped launch the Family Literacy Initiative for Texas, which is a statewide initiative aimed at promoting underprivileged children's reading readiness when they enter school. The project is designed to complement ongoing state efforts to improve performance from pre-kindergarten through the third grade. The project has distributed nearly $1 million in grants over the past five years to 50 family literacy programs across Texas.

She also works on "Reach Out and Read," a program in which doctors and nurses encourage parents to read to their infants and toddlers and aid parents in developing ways to integrate books into their children's lives.

Laura also has participated in charitable programs that promoted breast cancer awareness, aid for abused and neglected children, and the arts.

Some have compared her work in reading to her mother-in-law's efforts on literacy while she was first lady. But Laura's interest in reading stems from her background as a teacher and librarian and Barbara Bush strongly supports her daughter-in-law's efforts. The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy donated $150,000 to Laura's literacy program, the First Lady's Family Literacy Initiative for Texas, which awards grants to deserving nonprofit groups.

And while not exactly seeking the limelight now, she apparently has grown more comfortable giving political speeches. At the 2000 convention, in her speech detailing her husband's work on education, she noted that Democratic presidential candidate Vice President Al Gore had been campaigning at schools and often spent the night at the home of a local teacher.

"Well, George spends every night with a teacher," she said to much approval from the partisan audience.

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George W. and Laura with daughters Jenna (left) and Barbara. (Courtesy National Archives/George Bush Presidential Library)  


 


 VIDEO
CNN's Bernard Shaw profiles Laura Bush (July 31)

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Laura Bush speaks to the Republican National Convention (July 31)

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