Driving is one of the most dangerous activities we engage in, and most of us do it every day, little realizing the peril of it. Every year in the U.S. there are approximately
This is the story of one of those accidents. It resulted in the death of someone you've never heard of, at the hands of someone you have.
In May 2000, a two-page police report pertaining to a fatal accident that had taken place near Midland, Texas, in 1963 was made public. It contained the information that 17-year-old Laura Welch had run a stop sign, causing the death of the sole occupant of the vehicle hers had struck. According to that report, the future First Lady had been driving her Chevrolet sedan to a local drive-in theater on a clear night shortly after
How fast Miss Welch might have been driving is open to question. That part of the police report is illegible, although two biographies of the First Lady refer to her as having been going
News accounts from 1963 reported the young man as having been thrown from his car and dying of a broken neck; he was pronounced dead on arrival at Midland Memorial Hospital. According to various biographies of
The two teen girls were taken to the same hospital and treated for minor injuries that amounted to bumps and bruises.
Michael Douglas, the young man who was killed, had been a member of Laura Welch's crowd at high school and her friend. He had been a star athlete, excelling in track and football, and was looked up to by his peers not just for his athlete prowess, but for his personality and intelligence too. By all reports, he was likeable, outgoing, and funny. He was nominated as the school's most popular boy while a junior, an honor that almost always went to a senior.
There has always been speculation about the nature of his relationship with Laura Welch. One rumor asserts the two had never dated, but that Laura had been romantically interested in him. Another claims he had been Laura's boyfriend when he died, and another that he had once been her boyfriend but the couple had subsequently broken up. (The latter theory is advanced in the 2002 biography of the Bushes, George and Laura: Portrait of an American Marriage, which states Laura Welch and Michael Douglas had dated throughout early and
The accident is difficult to understand in that it took place on a clear night on dry pavement at a crossroads described as "the middle of nowhere," where the view was unobstructed and the stop sign that faced Laura Welch was clearly visible. (The intersection was a
In her 2010 autobiography, Laura Bush attributed the accident to a combination of a dangerous intersection, the darkness of night, a less than safe car (on the victim's part), and her own non-optimal eyesight. She acknowledged that the victim, Mike Douglas, was a close friend of hers but stated that he was not her boyfriend:
I left Judy's house and headed to the loop, which back then was a little country road with no streetlights circling around Midland.
We talked as I drove along the pitch-black road. I knew in my mind that somewhere ahead was a right turn for Big Spring Street, where the drive-in theater was, because the loop almost dead-ended at Big Spring. Beyond the turn the asphalt stopped, and there was nothing more than a trail of unpaved dirt and dust. Most drivers turned right, toward town. I knew there was a turn, but where that turn was seemed very far away until suddenly, off in the middle of a field, I glimpsed a stop sign with the corner beam of my headlights. At that moment, I heard Judy's voice: "There's a stop sign." And I just couldn't stop. I was going along, a little below the speed limit, which was fifty-five miles an hour. The next thing I knew, I was in the intersection, and immediately in front of me was another car. It came rushing out of the darkness, and I was right upon it, with a second to turn the wheel. All I heard was the horrible sound of metal colliding, the catastrophic boom that occurs when two hard pieces of steel make contact.
[Mike] was a handsome boy with a beautiful smile, and he was a top athlete at Lee. He was not my boyfriend, although for a decade some in the press have claimed that he was. But for years, he was my very close friend.
All through high school, Mike and I were good friends; we talked on the phone for hours, and Mike's circle of close friends included nearly all of my own. And so it was unbelievable to me that it was his car in that almost always empty intersection. It was a small car, a Corvair Monza, Detroit's version of a compact, economy car designed to compete with the Volkswagen Beetle. It was sporty and sleek, and it was also the car that Ralph Nader made famous in his book Unsafe at Any Speed. He claimed the car was unstable and prone to rollover accidents. I was driving my dad's much larger and heavier Chevy Impala.
So many lives were wrecked that night at that corner, which was known as a particularly dangerous place. Already that year, two other people had lost their lives in crashes where the loop met Big Spring Street. After Mike's death, the city did install a much bigger stop sign and posted warnings. But it was too late for us.
A dangerous intersection, a less than safe car, and me. I don't see well, I didn't ever see well, and maybe that played a part. Or perhaps it was simply dark. Judy and I were talking, and I was an inexperienced driver who got to a corner before I expected it.
There are those who want to believe the future First Lady deliberately and with malice aforethought murdered her
Then there are the circumstances of the crash. It was
Consider two cars traveling in the dark at right angles to each other, each going approximately
One e-mailed version of the rumor tries to supply an answer to that inconsistency, saying, "She knew it was her boyfriend's car driving south, because of the unique headlight configuration of his 1962 Corvair Sedan." The vehicles were traveling at right angles to one another, so an unusual headlight array on one wouldn't necessarily have been easily visible to the other. (According to automotive experts, the headlight array on the 1962 Corvair Monza was typical of the cars of the day; two headlights on each side, as this photograph shows.)
So 17-year-old Laura Welch did cause the death of a friend by running a stop sign, but to see more in the story than that is to surrender oneself up to baseless imaginings. Yes, it is always easier to attribute malice to bad outcomes, but that does not mean malice is an integral component of tragedy, especially those involving people Fate later chooses to exalt.
According to George and Laura: Portrait of an American Marriage, Laura Welch did not find out that the driver of the other vehicle had died at the scene until later when she and her girlfriend were being treated at the hospital. And she did not learn his identity until later still, when her parents arrived and broke the news to her. It shattered her.
She was barely 17 and she had taken the life of a friend. She has since carried the weight of this, and it changed her, at least according to those who knew her before and after. Only rarely has she spoken of this with the press (although she has often been asked), but even on those occasions her answers have been oblique, almost as if she cannot bear to think of it, let alone speak of it.
Barbara "there are many sides to a tragedy, never just one" Mikkelson