Know as The Book Babes, Ellen Heltzel, a book critic who lives in Portland, and Margo Hammond, a book critic based in St. Petersburg, Fla., are authors of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures" (Da Capo Press). Their radio program airs monthly on WMNF-FM in Tampa. Check them out at www.thebookbabes.com.
Our fellow feministas have had a field day taking down Laura Bush as a throwback First Lady - a sort of reheated Mamie Eisenhower, albeit one with a library card and less pink in her wardrobe. But look who's getting the last laugh: After two terms in the White House, Mrs. Bush leaves Washington with the reputation of a saint and an anticipated $8 mil for a book deal - a cool million for every year she (or, more likely, one of her many underlings) had to escort Barney to the Rose Garden to take a pee rather than just letting him out the back door in Crawford. Michelle Obama, take note (and vegans, please see this as metaphor): There are more ways than one for a woman to skin her career rabbit.
But why should I tell our First Lady-elect (a bit of literary license there - of course, she wasn't elected!) what she has recognized herself? Having stood by her good mate's side as he walked two bestsellers to the altar, Mrs. Obama is hip to the power of the pen, both in economic and political terms. So she's already taking a page out of Mrs. Bush's well-crafted play book and revealing the savvy of an old D.C. hand (which she soon will be, alas).
Remember the '90s bestseller "The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right"? Well, here's the outline (to my agent: longer treatment available on request) for a revised "Rules" applicable to any First Spouse wishing to use the job to maximum reward and effect.
1. Repeat three times, "I am not Hillary Clinton. I am not Hillary Clinton. I am not Hillary Clinton." Hillary may finally have found her calling at the State Department, but as we well remember, she never quite found her fit in the White House. Call it the Baby Boomer's curse: Women in our age group cut their teeth on gender equality and are forever struggling to prove it.
2. Declare yourself publicly as wife and mother first and foremost. On reaching the White House, pledge to never go near the West Wing. Adopt meaningful causes that are women-friendly enough to get you on "Oprah" but substantive enough for "Meet the Press" (re: Mrs. Bush's advocacy for Afghani women and children). Above all, remember to stay on message.
3. First guest in the Lincoln Bedroom: Washington's elite bookmaker, Robert Barnett, who has forged seven-figure book deals for more members of the political and media Mafia than you can count on both hands. In exchange for a hefty hourly fee, Barnett helps authors to use their celebrity firepower for leverage and avoid an agent who takes 15 per cent. Leave such nasty wealth-sharing to me and the other hoi poloi. Because, hey, you're First Lady, and that should come with benefits!
Dear Ellen, the First Lady of Book Babes,
I agree that so far Michelle Obama has avoided the pitfalls that snared Hillary Clinton in her attempt to be a First Lady with brains, but I don't expect MO will take many pages from the Laura Bush playbook. Emphasizing her role as a mother of two young children was a savvy move on the campaign trail and probably reflected, in part, Obama's true feelings of obligation and love. But don't suppose that someone who attended two Ivy League universities and held a high-paying position at a prestigious law firm will be satisfied as First Nanny (or Adoring Wife). Michelle Obama, I predict, will write her own chapter on how to be a First Lady. Yes, she can.
As for Laura Bush's touted book deal, any publisher would be a fool to shell out $8 million, if the about-to-be-former First Lady is willing to serve up only an adult version of "Read All About It," the children's book she wrote with her daughter. Counting on the Bush brand, HarperCollins printed 500,000 copies of that book last spring. But according to the Associated Press, despite a mother-daughter appearance on the "Today Show," Nielsen Book Scan recently showed a disappointing 77,000 copies sold (the organization tracks about 70 per cent of industry sales).
To attract buyers, Bush should consider one of the three following memoir models:
1. Memoir as Revenge
"My Turn," by Nancy Reagan. Nancy, who perfected the First Lady who gazes adoringly at husband, knew that readers want more than just a sanitized version of a person's life (see Ronald Reagan's autobiography). Her memoir settled scores, and the book flew off the shelves.
2. Memoir as Political Launching Pad
"Living History," by Hillary Clinton. Hillary, who wrote about her past with one eye on the future, understood that if you aren't willing to tell us where the bodies are buried, at least give us the strong sense that we are reading the story of someone still operating as a political player. That way, we need to know what you have to say, even if it's sanitized.
3. A Memoir That Actually Tells the Truth
"American Life," by Curtis Sittenfeld. Although this is a fictionalized version of Laura Bush's life, it ironically offers a hint at what would really boost Laura Bush's memoir sales: She tells the truth and offers us a very human portrait of a woman who for eight years has been a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, slipped into a Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle. The public knows virtually nothing about Laura Bush, and what we know seems contradictory. A memoir that provided us with some real answers would break all sales records. Answers, for example, to questions like:
How did running a stop sign when she was 17, which resulted in the death of a classmate (a scene fictionalized by Sittenfeld, but based on fact) affect Laura Bush's life?
Was the choice to dis-invite American poets to the White House who came out against her husband's war really hers, or did the librarian in her yield to political handlers?
How did her husband's dramatic drop in popularity affect her and other White House insiders?
Who is the real Laura Bush?