Spoken from the Heart
When I was preparing for my first meeting with Laura Bush in 2001, it is fair to say, I was pretty apprehensive. Tony and I had developed a friendship with Bill and Hillary Clinton that had begun even before my husband became prime minister. The relationship with the American president is one of the most important for any British prime minister - and now a new Republican first couple had entered the White House.
We knew, too, that the Bushes would be aware that we had been close to their predecessors, not just personally, but also politically. Laura's own misgivings weren't assuaged, she writes in this compelling autobiography, by headlines in the British press predicting the "clash of Cherie and Dubbya's cowgirl", nor by the descriptions of her as a "cookie-baking homemaker, dull, mumsy and old-fashioned". Neither of us need have worried. We liked each other immediately and became, and remain, firm friends.
Laura Bush is a true daughter of Texas, which makes her honest, feisty and strong-minded. She was born in Midland, Texas, in 1946, to a father who had been a GI and who had helped to liberate the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in Thuringia. He brought back with him an album of photographs that Laura still has. From time to time during her childhood, she would sit with him and look at those terrible reminders of man's inhumanity, and an abhorrence of intolerance became a part of her.
She was a much-loved only child, yet always longed to be part of a big family, something she achieved years later through her marriage to George W Bush. She trained first as a teacher, at one point coming to the UK to do a semester of teacher training, before switching a few years later to become a librarian.
As a teacher, she did not choose to work in comfortable, middle-class schools: she taught at primary level in disadvantaged areas where there were many African-American students, and at a time when there was still a great need for the civil rights movement in the South. Such experiences reinforced her respect for people of all ethnicities - something, by the way, that her husband shares.
Laura became well known in Midland not merely for her work, but because, unlike most of her contemporaries, she reached the age of 30 without getting married. Then came a whirlwind romance with George W Bush, who was from a completely different social background. He proposed less than two months after meeting her, to the astonishment of some of her neighbours. One local remarked acidly: "Can you imagine? The most eligible bachelor in Midland marrying the old maid of Midland?" Typically, Laura found this funny, pointing out she was four months younger than George; the comments were yet another example of double standards when it comes to men and women.
From the beginning of the marriage, she was plunged into political life. George soon ran for the House of Representatives but lost. Within a year they were campaigning again, this time successfully, for George's father, who was Ronald Reagan's running mate.
Politics continued to dominate their lives, sometimes in their most private moments. As Laura was wheeled out of the operating theatre after the emergency delivery of her twin girls, a cameraman photographed her. "What was even worse," she writes, "was that I smiled, trying to be accommodating, instead of simply telling him to go away and leave me alone."
In the years that followed, her husband ascended the political ladder and was elected governor of Texas in 1995. It is her account of her own early years and of those raising a young family in Texas that I found the most fascinating; it tells us why she became such a success when George Jr followed his father into the White House.
She carried with her to Washington a lifelong passion for education. While George was governor, she had set up the Texas Book Festival, continuing the work for literacy that she had begun as a young teacher. As first lady, she helped launch the National Book Festival to promote literacy across the United States, an idea that Lyudmila Putin emulated in Russia.
Tony and I were, in fact, the first overseas visitors to the new president and first lady. Despite our mutual apprehensions, a shared love of books and a passion for women's rights soon helped Laura and I forge a close friendship. Over the years, we did events together for breast cancer and for women in Afghanistan. We also travelled to Rwanda and visited the genocide museum in Kigali, both of us in tears in the room of the lost children.
Through the many hours I spent in her company, I was always struck by her intelligence, her dedication to her causes and her absolute loyalty to and love for George and the girls. This comes over strongly in the book, and there is no doubt in my mind that she was his most important counsellor.
Laura was politically very astute and incredibly diplomatic - a skill I never quite mastered. I remember an episode at the G8 summit on Sea Island in 2004, hosted by the Bushes, when Laura and I were on a table with Presidents Chirac and Putin. Chirac began opining on the differences between the United States and France, how the French had never discriminated against black people, nor did they try to impose their religious views on anyone.
Even though I knew he was quite happy to be provocative if it meant he was centre of attention, I was biting my tongue. But when he compared the French to the Russians, who, he said, had also never invaded any country and had always been tolerant of other religions, I at last took the bait. "Try telling that to the Russian Jews!" I burst out. Laura was a cooler head. She may have been seething inwardly, but she effortlessly steered the conversation back into calmer waters.
No one reading this account of her life can be left in any doubt why Laura Bush was so popular, even among those of her fellow countrymen and women who had little time for her husband's politics. She used her position to do a huge amount of good for the causes she held dear, most of them centred on women and children.
A few months ago my daughter tried to read Curtis Sittenfeld's novel American Wife, which is supposedly loosely based on the characters
of George and Laura Bush. She told me that while it was a good story, she found herself getting too angry to finish it, because of the way Laura was portrayed - Kathryn, too, had got to know and like Laura. She is the genuine article: a loving wife and mother, a loyal friend and a warm, smart woman, who made a difference not only in her immediate surroundings, but across the world.
Spoken from the Heart
Simon & Schuster, 464pp, £20
Cherie Blair is a barrister at Matrix Chambers specialising in public law and human rights. Her autobiography, "Speaking for Myself",
is published in paperback by Sphere (£7.99)