I skipped over Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, about a fictional first lady substantially based on Laura Bush, when it was released in 2008, in part because in the final year of the Bush administration, I wasn’t in a mood to feel sympathy for anyone in the first family. But when I finally read the novel, four years removed from the Bushs’ departure from public life, and four years into the Obama administration, I found myself surprisingly touched. The journey of Alice Lindgren from small-town Wisconsin, to a job teaching public school, to marriage with Charlie Blackwell, the son of a prominent family, and eventually to the White House required me to confront the extent to which I’d put aside my tendency to be curious about people because of Laura Bush’s place at her husband’s side. And while the novel holds Alice accountable for her decision to subsume her independent political and moral instincts in her husband’s public life, it also makes clear the cost that she’s paid for a decision that, from the outside and in the real world, I treated as if it was despicable and idiotic.
First, there is the car accident. In real life, Laura Bush’s accidental killing of her high school classmate, a young man who has in some cases been reported to have been a current or former boyfriend of hers, when she ran a stop sign has sometimes been treated as a sign of frivolity or self-absorption. American Wife takes seriously the prospect that the boy Alice killed was, if not her boyfriend, about to assume that role in her life. In the novel, Alice kills Andrew, who had previously dated her best friend Dana, on the way to a bonfire that would have been their first official date. “I loved him, I loved him completely, and I knew that he loved me back,” she writes of the plan for that meeting. “Or maybe this is only what I think now. But it was all we ever had! Approaching each other, him from the gym, me from the library—this was when I walked down the aisle and hew as waiting, this was when we made love, it was every anniversary, every reunion in an airport or train station, ever reconciliation after a quarrel. This was the whole of our lives together.” Alice Lindgren was a person before she was First Lady, and she continues to be, even as she becomes a symbol. It’s easy to forget that people we dislike deserve that minimal courtesy.
And it’s interesting to see how people we might once have extended the courtesy of considering their actions in the most charitable light become the people we stop extending any courtesies to at all. With Alice, her withdrawal from her life as a teacher, and from the public performance of her own principals, begins when she meets Charlie, who is initially charmed by her dedication to her job as a librarian, but who has enormous reservoirs of need of his own. Alice speculates that her husband pursued office not “Because he wanted to prove that he was as smart and ambitious as his brothers, journalists speculated, or because he wanted to avenge his father’s own humiliating presidential run in 1968…[But] because of his fear of the dark. Because if he were governor, and then president, he’d be guarded by state troopers and later by agents, he’d never be far from people specifically assigned to watch out for him; he might be assassinated, but he wouldn’t have to walk down a shadowy hallway by himself.” What the novel doesn’t say is that public office also allows Alice to share the burden of Charlie once she begins to learn what kind of person he is, the contempt with which he’s regarded by his family, the enormity of his need. “I felt such an intimate kind of anger,” she thinks of him during one of their fights. “Was this what marriage was, the slow process of getting to know another individual far better than was advisable? Sometimes Charlie’s gestures and inflections were so mercilessly familiar that it was as if he were an extension of me, an element of my own personality over which I had little control.” His public life allows him to direct those gestures and inflections at other people, just as the arrival of Reverend Randy, the man who counsels Charlie through his addiction and brings him to born-again Christianity, lifts the burden on Alice to support Charlie where he is most unlikable.
But sharing that burden involves sacrifices on Alice’s part, things she gave up to preserve the marriage she gave up more of her life for. We talk a great deal about how unfair it is that First Ladies have to give up their jobs and professional ambitions for a job that’s unpaid and almost invariably involves a dedication to anodyne, if worthy, causes. But Alice’s trajectory, from elementary school librarian to political wife, makes it clear how those curtailments are only obvious in retrospect. After Alice makes a series of beautiful Papier-mâché figures of children’s books for her library, she’s cheered at a faculty meeting. As she reflects later: “What I couldn’t have imagined at the time was that the applause after the lice film was the moment of my greatest professional achievement. It was the most public recognition I ever received for being myself rather than an extension of someone else, or even worse, for being a symbol…In the years since, I have received great and vulgar quantities of attention, more attention than even the most vain or insecure individual could possibly wish for, and I have never enjoyed it a fraction as much.”
And as First Lady, Alice bitterly regrets the opportunity she’s forfeited to do good directly, or really at all. “In my twenties, when I was a teacher and a librarian working with children from poor families, I thought it was the beginning, that my contributions to society would increase and continue,” she recalls. ” But in fact that was my deepest involvement; in the years since, I have only extended myself from higher and higher perches, in increasingly perfunctory ways, with more cameras to chronicle my virtue.” There’s no question that Alice made a choice to stop working, and to devote herself to Charlie, their daughter, and the maintenance of Charlie’s public image, even as it’s dedicated to causes Alice doesn’t necessarily share. But there are costs to that choice, and American Wife is one of the few pieces of popular culture I can think of that portrays public service, direct service really, as a source of real pleasure, and something it’s a deep and abiding shame to choose to give up.
And Alice’s lack of courage, or perhaps her lack of desire for conviction, has other costs for her as well. This is particularly true in her relationship with her grandmother, who Alice becomes distant from when she learns that she has a relationship with another woman who lives in Chicago, a doctor who performs a then-illegal abortion on Alice when she becomes pregnant in high school. Her decision to distance herself from her grandmother becomes a source of profound regret that Alice is only able to half-apologize for: “I’m sorry, Granny. I’m sorry that—” I paused. That I was childish about what you wanted in the world. That I was unable to accept a thing that caused no harm, that I acted as if it were shameful because someone somewhere gave me the impression that it was, and not because I bothered to consider the situation for myself.”
Ultimately, Alice chooses to take a small stand against her husband’s politics, and recovers some measure of herself. But it’s very little, very late. As a librarian, Alice sums up her life, and her moral engagement in the form of a fairy tale:
Since I was a small girl, I have lived inside this cottage, shelted by its roof and walls. I have known of people suffering—I have not been blind to them in the way that privilege allows, the way my own husband and now my daughter are blind. It is a statement of fact and not a judgement to say Charlie and Ella’s minds aren’t oriented in that direction; in a way, it absolves them, whereas the unlucky have knocked on the door of my consciousness, they have emerged from the forest and knocked many times over the course of my life, and I have only occasionally allowed them entry. I’ve done more than nothing and much less than I could have. I have laid inside, beneath a quilt on a comfortable couch, in a kind of reverie, and when I heard the unlucky outside my cottage, sometimes I passed them coins or scraps of food, and sometimes I ignored them altogether; if I ignored them, they had no choice but to walk back into the woods, and when they grew weak or got lost or were circled by wolves, I pretended I couldn’t hear them calling my name.
The compromises of First Ladies, of Alice Lindgren and Laura Bush in particular, may take a particular and retrograde form that renders them particularly difficult for some of us to understand. But they are deeply tangled with the intimate bounds of marriage. And it’s a genuinely interesting question whether those compromises are more morally defensible, or even admirable, in comparison to the kinds of compromises people with actual power make for their own advancement and gain. We may treat love and marriage as if they’re trivial things to privilege over political involvement. But it’s a choice that most of us are profoundly fortunate to never have to make.