Claim: While a teenager, future First Lady Laura Bush caused the death of a classmate in a car accident.
[Collected on the Internet, 2004]
I heard at a party last Saturday that Laura Bush, at age 17, ran a stop sign and crashed into another car, killing a 17-year-old classmate.
[Collected on the Internet, 2003]
I heard a rumor this past weekend concerning our First Lady, Laura Bush, to the effect that she committed manslaughter at one time by backing over her boyfriend with her car.
Origins: 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 6.5 million traffic accidents, resulting in about 42,000 fatalities.
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 8 p.m. on 6 November 1963 when she entered an intersection without heeding the stop sign and there collided with the Corvair sedan driven by 17-year-old Michael Douglas. Also in the car with Laura Welch was her friend, 17-year-old Judy Dykes.
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 50 mph at the time of the collision. The speed limit on that portion of road was 55 mph. According to the police report neither driver had been drinking, but no tests were performed. No charges were filed as a result of the accident.
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 Mrs. Bush, the boy's father had been traveling in a car immediately behind his son's and witnessed the whole thing.
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 mid-1963, but by the fall of that year Michael was going out with Regan Gammon, one of Miss Welch's closest friends.)
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 two-way, not a four-way, stop.) Yet looking to only weather and road conditions to explain what happened is to miss the obvious: there were two teen girls in the car, girls who were on their way to a party and thus who likely would have been bubbling over with chatter about who would be there. Laura Welch, the driver, had turned 17 only two days earlier. She and her passenger were still of an age when they could all too easily shut out everything going on around them, even the approach of another car and the recognition of a stop sign.
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 (ex-)boyfriend over some now forgotten teen tiff and who point to what they view as the suspicious circumstances of the accident and the subsequent lack of prosecution as proofs of their supposition. Yet to entertain such a hypothesis is to believe the young woman would have attempted to kill another by doing away with herself. (As the driver of what was intended to be a murder weapon, she would have had no reason to believe she would survive a collision severe enough to be fatal to her prey — that events turned out that way doesn't mean that outcome could have been reasonably foreseen.) Although the theory of "I'll kill you even though I have to kill myself to do it" might still play in a person sufficiently vengeance-minded (e.g., a suicide bomber), it is far better discounted in cases where an innocent life would also be taken (e.g., a passenger in the car). Those intent upon acts of revenge are generally impelled by a misguided sense of justice, and there is precious little justice (misguided or otherwise) in causing the death of innocent parties.
Then there are the circumstances of the crash. It was 8 p.m. on a November night in Texas on roads far removed from any town, so it was dark. With no stop sign facing him, the doomed young man would have had no reason to slow his vehicle even if he had seen another car approaching the intersection. He therefore would have been traveling at least 50 mph. Laura Welch ran the stop sign facing her, so there is reason to assume she too was going approximately 50 mph, the speed she would have been doing if she'd had the right of way.
Consider two cars traveling in the dark at right angles to each other, each going approximately 50 mph. The span of time available in which to form murderous intent would have amounted to mere seconds, given the speed at which the event was unfolding and how close the two vehicles had to be to one another before the ill-intentioned would recognize the vehicle of her target. It doesn't add up.
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 photo 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