Laura Bush Looks to the Future
With her time in the White House coming to a close, the first lady remains dedicated to her causes and to her family. Just don't ask her to cook dinner.
For eight years, Laura Bush has been a private woman thrown into the world’s most public fishbowl. And while all eyes were focused on the president, the first lady — who came to Washington thinking she’d champion “education, children, reading, issues I have spent my life working on” — quietly transformed from an unfairly pegged traditional wife into a powerful presence on the world stage. In fact, as her husband winds down, Laura Bush— who has visited 76 countries, 28 without the president by her side— seems to be hitting her diplomatic stride.
“It took a long time after coming here to realize I had this international podium, this voice,” says Laura, relaxing in the golden hues of the White House family quarters. “Even after the positive response to my 2001 radio address on the plight of Afghan women, it didn’t occur to me that I could speak out on global issues. But when a cousin suggested I read [Burmese Nobel prizewinner and activist] Aung San Suu Kyi’s Freedom from Fear, and I started realizing the military regime’s long-term oppression, I felt I had to speak out.”
The evolution of Laura Bush started with 9/11, a defining event for her personally as well as for the Bush administration, whose response, even seven years later, remains controversial. That morning, speeding to the Capitol to brief Senator Ted Kennedy’s education committee, the first lady was told by the Secret Service that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. “Everyone thought it was a horrible accident,” she recalls. By the time she walked in Kennedy’s door, she knew differently. “I thought, ‘How’s the president? Jenna and Barbara? What does this mean for us as a country?’ It was hard. I certainly wasn’t thinking about how it might change my life.”
Later, from “an undisclosed location,” she ﬁnally “talked to George and both girls, who were scared and crying. But the person I really wanted to call — to say I was all right — was my own mother. Though, frankly, what I really wanted,” she quickly adds, “was for her to tell me, ‘Yes, everything is going to be okay.’ She did, and just that security of talking to your mother …”
Now 89, Jenna Welch — who is “doing very well” in a Midland, Texas, retirement home — is still there to reassure Laura, who, following January’s inauguration of a new president, will again join her mother in Texas, albeit in Dallas, where the Bushes are relocating. (Her father, Harold Welch, who “loved kids and never met a dog he didn’t like,” notes Laura, died in 1995 after battling Alzheimer’s.)
“I’m looking forward to the afterlife, as I call it,” she says with a chuckle, cool and elegant in an Escada tweed jacket and black slacks. (Other favorites include Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera.) But she won’t be idle. Besides continuing to focus on global women’s issues, she’ll keep an eye on one of her proudest accomplishments, the National Book Festival, assuring it thrives like her original baby, the Texas Book Festival.
And, of course, there are her twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna. Mention Jenna’s metamorphosis from resident wild child to author and wife and her mother beams. “She’s been so mature. Parents are always the most surprised. Your children actually grow up! But the girls and I have always had a relaxed relationship. I wasn’t a particularly protective mother; we wanted them to be independent. When they were little, at the swimming pool, and wanted lemonades, I’d say, ‘Go get them.’ And these two tiny little girls would go off by themselves and order.
“Being together gave them confidence,” she continues, “which is why we nurtured their individual talents. When they were three, we’d wake up in the morning and Barbara would already be sitting at the coffee table, cutting and pasting, which Jenna, with fewer ﬁne motor skills, never did. She’d hold the scissors upside down.”
Throughout the White House years, Laura has remained close to her daughters, “visiting their colleges, moving them into dorms, buying bedspreads, moving them out. I wouldn’t have missed it.” They, in turn, “came to Washington some, certainly every Christmas.” And now that Jenna has her own Baltimore home with husband Henry Hager? “Well, it’s a difficult passage. On the one hand, you’re happy your child found a really good match; on the other, you know your relationship will never be the same.”
With her public-approval ratings eclipsing those of the president, Laura remains her husband’s most understated asset. Though often portrayed as reserved and uptight, she is, in fact, open, quick, thoughtful, and funny. “I am not,” she says, “a fearful person.” Indeed. Straight out of college, this newly minted teacher and debutante product of white, middle-class, segregated Midland headed for the inner city. “I went to college in the ’60s, when people were activists — and I was,” she explains. “Teaching in predominantly African-American and Hispanic schools was what I wanted.”
And when the teacher and librarian wanted to marry George W. Bush, she did — three months after they were introduced, having bucked, at 31, the conventional marriage tide in favor of a career. “Of course, there was chemistry!” she says, smiling. “That’s always the first sign, isn’t it? George and I went so fast because both of us, hoping we’d ﬁnd somebody, were thrilled we did. And though we never really met, we grew up in the same unpretentious oil town with the same small-town values: family, church, friends — a big bond. We share mutual friends from as far back as first grade, from every part of our lives.” (These include the Midland group, girlfriends who spirit Laura out of Washington every year, “at least once,” she says, for personal weeklong hiking trips in different national parks.)
And now that she’s leaving the job, her emotions range from sadness to relief. “The hardest part of being here has been the difficult decisions the president has had to make. Every president bears a terrific burden of responsibility, but especially this one after September 11. [The weight of that is] something I wish people understood.”
But Laura Bush, wife of a sitting president, daughter-in-law of a past president, is nothing if not a political realist. “There’s a certainty about this job. You get four years, eight if you’re lucky, then move on. It’ll be fun for George and me to live a more normal lifestyle again, go out to dinner,” muses Laura, who happily admits she’s no Julia Child. “Then,” she laughs, “there’ll really be a reason