Laura Bush is out and about and aglow. Since leaving the White House, the former first lady has found her spot – and her spotlight. The first, she says, comes in expanded private time with her twin daughters, 28-year-old Barbara and Jenna. The second shines on the lecture circuit, where her call for more and better opportunities for women is met with standing ovations.
It’s an odd turn of career, you might think, for a school teacher and librarian who moved seamlessly into life as a wealthy Texas mother, homemaker and political wife. But an hour or two in her company makes clear that no finishing school in the world polishes a woman into a public figure the way eight years in the White House “bubble” can do. Bush may have begun her career as a reticent librarian, but, at age 63, she’s a sleek, self-assured, well-dressed and well-coiffed figure, at ease with overflowing audiences.
I saw and heard Bush recently at a college campus where she was speaking. So, how is she doing?
“I’m having a lot of fun with my adult daughters,” she said, drawing indulgent smiles from her audience.
It’s difficult not to smile at Laura Bush when she’s addressing a large crowd. First off, she’s good at it. She is a warm figure and she invites her audience to like her. Standing at a microphone in a red suit that caressed her slim figure, with gleaming hair, sculpted cheekbones and a radiating smile, she grew quickly at ease with the large crowd.
“When you think about all the things that have been said about her husband, it must be pretty tough on her,” an 81-year-old-woman sitting near me whispered to her companion. Bush herself took a more mocking tone. “I’d like to report that now that we’re back in our house in Dallas I’d like to say things are back to normal. But I’m not sure I remember what ‘normal’ is,” she said.
Looking at George W. Bush’s term from the other end, she characterized the “harrowing transition” her family made in moving into the White House. True, she declared, they had “moved into a house that we knew very well” for four years when it was home to her in-laws, Barbara and George H.W. Bush. But nothing, she emphasized, “could have prepared us for the awesome responsibility of living there.”
The Bush clan would certainly try. Laura Bush recalled that she had taken comfort in the presence of 23 family members in the White House on Inauguration Night.
There was comfort, too, in the timing of that term’s beginning. Despite many problems in the world, Bush recalled, “global terrorism had yet to emerge as a threat to our country.”
When terrorism did strike forcefully – destroying New York City’s World Trade Center in 2001 – the first lady watched with the rest of us, on television. In the aftermath, she revealed, she was taken to a “safe haven” below the White House “that looks like something decorated in the Nixon era. And like all of you,” she told her solemn audience, “we woke up on Sept.12 to a different reality.”
It’s a reality with new and challenging roles for women, Bush said.
“I believe that women are a vital force for social change,” she declared. “I believe that it’s important the United States stand with women who are speaking out and compelling change.”
In Afghanistan the need to support women is particularly vital, she indicated. “Even with the progress, much work remains,” she said, emphasizing, “This is our only chance. If we don’t make it this time, there won’t be another.”
Laura Bush does not step before microphones and overflow crowds to criticize her husband’s presidency. She speaks to support his actions, his heritage and what she believes the future may hold. As a result, individuals listened and left with their opinions about the Bush years – pro or con – pretty much intact.
As for personal honors she values, Laura Bush summed up, “The greatest honor of being first lady was being able every day to watch not only my husband but every American stand up to fear.”
Agree with her or not, she’s a gutsy lady, this part-time Mainer, Laura Bush.