Michelle vs. Laura
Curtis Sittenfeld, author of a novel based on Laura Bush, on her first lady fixation—and what to make of Mrs. Obama.
The author of a novel based on Laura Bush, on her first lady fixation—and what to make of Mrs. Obama.
In 2001, when I fell in love with Laura Bush, I had some explaining to do—first to myself (how could I, a Democrat, find her, a Republican, so endearing?) and also to my friends. It wasn’t just that they wondered why I would be enamored with the wife of a president whose policies both they and I despised; it was also that, frankly, my friends didn’t see Laura Bush as that interesting. She was a bookworm who wore matronly suits—even putting aside her husband’s ghastly politics, what was there to be fascinated by?
But I’ve long been convinced that Laura is more complicated than she seems, that she isn’t one of those quiet people who’s quiet because she has nothing to say but instead is a reservoir of secrets and insights she simply chooses not to share with the rest of us. Her affinity for a wide range of demanding books is well documented. According to Ann Gerhart’s 2004 biography of her, The Perfect Wife, Laura is close friends with many liberals and was known to go antiquing with gay male friends prior to moving into the White House. And thanks to her, the Crawford ranch is a state-of-the-art model of ecological correctness.
As much as I admire Michelle Obama, it pains me to be riding on such a crowded bandwagon.
I even admire Laura’s restraint and discretion, the fact that she doesn’t tell nosy people like me what’s none of our business anyway. Whenever I hear that she’ll appear on television, I always watch, hoping for clues about her inner life—the great mystery, obviously, being what in God’s name does she think of her husband?—and I always come away dissatisfied, which I actually mean as a compliment. With this week’s news that Laura is talking to publishers about writing a memoir, I might be the only one out there who’s equally hopeful and worried that she’ll tell all.
Now, after almost eight years of Laura-loving, Michelle Obama is about to become our first lady. I’m totally captivated by her, too—and so, it turns out, is everyone else. And though I’d have expected this affirmation of my taste to feel good, frankly, I’m not sure if I like sharing my first-lady-to-be with so many other people.
For a brief moment, I thought that I’d get to have Michelle to myself. Back in June, the media informed us that she was controversial and divisive and could cost her husband votes. The only problem with this argument was that, as far as I can tell, it was a total myth. For an article about Michelle I wrote for Time Magazine in September, I trailed her at the Democratic National Convention, and in advance of my trip to Denver, I began asking everyone I encountered for impressions of her. I got a wide range of reactions—you know, everything from “I love her!” to “I fucking love her!” Admittedly, the people I encounter skew toward my own demographic—white twenty- and thirty-something NPR listeners—but at the same time, I live in Missouri, which isn’t exactly a bastion of liberalism.
Of course, Michelle Obama is so charming, so smart and gracious and funny and beautiful, that I have no doubt she’ll soon win over her few detractors. The only question is, do I really want Michelle to accumulate even more fans? I thought that loving Laura Bush was lonely, but in retrospect I’m realizing that maybe I enjoyed my loneliness. I could feel protective of her for being underestimated and I could enjoy the righteous self-satisfaction of being able to see what others couldn’t—it was like being obsessed with an obscure indie band, knowing I was a member of a very exclusive club, whereas loving Michelle Obama is like being a member of Netflix.
In fact, I’m sure it was this feeling of, No, but you’d agree with me, I know you would, if only I could make you understand! that prompted me to write not just a 3300-word paean to Laura for Salon in 2004 but also, more recently, a 550-page novel loosely inspired by her. (This might be an appropriate place to acknowledge that polls show Mrs. Bush is the most popular figure in the Bush White House—but, I mean, no one I know besides me DVRs her every television appearance and considers a biography of her to be one of their favorite books.)
I already know that I’ll never write a novel about Michelle Obama. I don’t need to prove to anyone that she’s intriguing or appealing because those are givens—hell, saying you like Michelle Obama is like saying you like Santa Claus, or ice cream. From the first moment I saw her, just before she delivered her convention speech in Denver, as she breezed past me and a few other reporters, tall and resplendent in her aquamarine dress, it was obvious she had that special glow—a literal glow, I swear—of charisma and intelligence and confidence.
But as much as I admire her, it pains me to be riding on such a crowded bandwagon. At times, I even feel an unseemly sense of competition with her other devotees: No, really, I like her more than you do! So I’m now trying to find someone else in the Obama administration to cultivate a fascination with—I’ve considered delightfully hammy Sasha, or Joe Biden’s plucky 90-year-old mom—but my heart’s just not in it. At least for the time being, I can take solace in the fact that Michelle Obama and I do actually have something special in common that not all our fellow Democrats share: As she mentioned last June on the “The View,” she too is a fan of Laura Bush.
Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of three novels, including, most recently, American Wife.