The first thing you need to know about Laura Bush is how nice she is - not that phony nice that so many political spouses have perfected, but a real down-to-earth, I'm-not-quite-sure-what-I'm doing-here-but-so-be-it kind of nice.
And she's really not quite sure what she's doing here. She was born and raised in Midland, Texas, and worked as a children's librarian. It turns out she went to the same junior high as a fellow named George W. Bush and even lived in the same apartment building as he did in Houston. But they never really met until she was 30 years old.
They married after a three-month, whirlwind courtship. She says she "would never have guessed that I would marry somebody who was even interested in politics." But once she did, she gamely went on the campaign trail, first in her husband's failed bid for Congress, then in his successful gubernatorial races, and now in his run for the White House.
She is well aware that people want to compare her to the current first lady, Hillary Clinton, and to her own mother-in-law, former first lady Barbara Bush. To all those questions she responds that if she gets the job, she'll do it her way, as Laura Bush.
That means focusing on the issues she has long supported, education and reading. When she first encountered the famously athletic Bush family, she was asked, "What do you do?"
"I said, 'I read,'" she told me with a laugh, during a recent interview at the governor's mansion in Austin. "They meant, of course, was I a great tennis player or golfer, which I'm not. But I love to read."
She founded the Texas Book Festival and is still a member of a book club. In fact, when I asked her if we might see a first lady's book club in the White House, she said, "That's a great idea. That's a really good idea."
She seems equally relaxed about the possibility of being first lady or not being first lady. If her husband loses, that means she gets to stay in her beloved Texas. If he wins, so much the better. In fact, Laura Bush she seems to have it all. She's smart and pretty, has a rich and famous husband who adores her, and 18-year-old twin daughters who provide a constant source of amusement and delight.
But before you start thinking that this is a woman who's never had to face anything truly difficult, you might want to consider this: When Laura Bush was 17 years old, she ran a stop sign in Midland and crashed into another car. The other river, reportedly her boyfriend at the time, was thrown from his doorless jeep and died instantly. There were no charges in the case, but that probably didn't dull her pain. The story hit the national press last spring, and I wondered, "Was it hard to have that come out?"
"It was hard to have that come out, " she replied, "Although I expected it to come out....It was certainly no secret. All of my friends knew, everyone in Midland knew. But that's hard....I mean that would be hard if it never came out."
She went on to acknowledge, "It's also made me much more anxious abut my daughters, about everyone's children, really. You know it's just a life experience. It's a way to learn how quickly life can change. And I learned that."
And without trying to psychoanalyze Mrs. Bush, I wondered whether in fact that tragic accident might be an important key to her personality, the reason she seems to have such a sense of calm about her, a refusal to get carried away with herself or her position in life. There is about her an air of serenity that is hard to define and also a sense that she thinks a lot of things that she doesn't say.
Her husband likes to tell people, "The best decision I ever made was to ask Laura to marry me." He's probably right about that.