Former first lady Laura Bush, MLS ’73, believes that when people look back on her husband’s presidency, they will see George W. Bush as someone who loved freedom.
“They’ll remember that he has a heart,” she said.
Laura joined former first lady Barbara Bush as the pair chatted candidly about their White House experiences. The invite-only discussion was a part of the daylong Enduring Legacies of America’s First Ladies conference held at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library.
“We really expected George’s presidency to be focused on domestic issues,” Laura said of her husband’s two terms. But after Sept. 11, 2001, the focus shifted to fighting terrorism and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—her most challenging times as first lady.
“If you’re lucky like we were, you have faith, family, and friends,” said Barbara, who was first lady during the 1990-1991 Gulf War.
The words and prayers of the public also offered comfort, Laura said. “You get a lot of strength from the American people,” she said. “It’s not how you read it in the newspaper or see it on TV.”
As for the biggest misconception about her husband? Laura said it was that he was just a “heedless cowboy.”
In lighter moments, the pair reminisced about the 12 Christmas parties the family held at Camp David, the fresh sheets each night on the White House beds, and the bonds between first families and the White House staff. (Also, did you know that George W. Bush has taken up oil painting?)
Barbara said adjusting to her role as first lady was easy thanks to her husband’s résumé . Prior to being president, George H.W. Bush was a congressman, an ambassador, and director of the CIA.
“He was everything,” Barbara said. “He still is everything.”
But Barbara was struck by how much of a “golden opportunity” first ladies have to do good. Among her accomplishments as first lady, in 1989, she founded the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, which works to build effective literacy programs across the country.
“Every single thing would be better in this world if everyone could read, write, and comprehend,” she said.
The former first ladies avoided political talk, although Barbara suggested that both Republicans and Democrats view compromise as a dirty word in Washington D.C. today.
“It isn’t a dirty word,” she said. “It’s part of how you get things done in business and in life.”
LBJ Library Photo by Lauren Gerson