Is Laura Bush trying to tell us something?
For months now, most of her family — in a drastic break with tradition — has been resolutely quiet on the 2016 presidential race. The Bushes have been at the forefront of Republican politics for nearly four decades, but after Jeb Bush dropped out of the GOP nomination race, they have declined to endorse Donald Trump and mostly stayed out of the news.
But who was Laura Bush hanging out with in Washington this week? Some establishment Republicans on Capitol Hill in need of a reelection boost? Or the fundraisers trying to bolster the party’s control of Congress?
Nope. Bush was here for an appearance with none other than Michelle Obama. They were sharing a stage to promote one of the most nonpartisan of issues — their work on behalf of military families — in their fourth event together in recent years.
It is no secret that the former and current first ladies are fond of each other. “I like this woman,” Obama has said of her predecessor.
At the National Archives on Friday morning for an American University conference on the service of the nation’s first ladies, Obama and Bush bantered as old friends do. They discussed their shared experiences worrying over military veterans and their families while their husbands serve as commander in chief, raising daughters and being part of the small club of presidential spouses.
“First ladies have been active forever,” Bush said, describing the advocacy work that comes with the office.
“Talk about Eleanor Roosevelt,” Obama chimed in. “Drop the mic on that one.”
“The fact is, you really have a podium always. I mean, people still listen to Barbara Bush. Don’t you think?” Laura Bush said, referring to her formidable mother-in-law. “I certainly do!”
The first ladies had a good laugh at that one.
If the event reflected a long-running mutual admiration between the two women, it also couldn’t help but draw attention to the Bushes’ decisions in this divisive political campaign. They are picking and choosing those with whom they want to be associated, and Laura Bush clearly likes the Obamas.
She and her husband will join the current first family again next week when they attend the opening ceremony for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. George W. Bush was president when the museum shifted from mere hope and dream to a tangible construction plan. Earlier this summer, the families were together in Dallas for the memorial honoring the police officers slain by a gunman during a Black Lives Matter protest. The former president sat next to Michelle Obama during the service and, for a while, held her hand.
The friendliness between the families during this nasty election cycle underscores the nation’s flailing tradition of bipartisanship and comity, said Cokie Roberts, who was a moderator for a 2014 panel in which they took part and has interviewed both women.
“They are friends and . . . they wanted to do [this] together because they like doing it together, which is so heartening in our troubled times,” Roberts said.
In her subtle way, Obama seemed several times to tweak Republican nominee Donald Trump — though, as in her now-famous Democratic convention speech in July, she never used his name.
On the sobering experience of visiting wounded military veterans, she said Friday, “that’s something a commander in chief thinks about before they pop off about going to war. Because when you’ve spent time on a base and you know these men and women and you know their families, you don't just talk about war like there are no implications. It’s serious business, and lives are changed forever. So I would hope that any commander in chief that would have the privilege of serving would understand that these are real lives and their families are impacted.”
She also spoke of her admiration for Gold Star families — those who have lost a loved one in military service. Following the Democratic convention, Trump disparaged Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a Muslim U.S. serviceman killed in Iraq, after they came out in support of Hillary Clinton.
The easy conversation onstage recalled other times the two women have held events together. In 2013, Bush hosted Obama at a summit in Tanzania attended by the first ladies of many African nations. The following year, Obama hosted Bush at the Kennedy Center for a White House-led conference with many of the same women. Then, last September, Bush invited Obama to sit with her for a George W. Bush Presidential Center event on how first ladies can advance gender issues; Obama, who was preparing for the pope’s visit to Washington, videoconferenced in and apologized for not attending in person.
“As you all know, I deeply admire and respect Laura. And I think that it’s important to collaborate with people you admire and respect, regardless of party,” Obama said then. “That’s what makes a democracy work, truly.”
Laura Bush concurred: “It’s also a great example for the world to see that women of different political parties in the United States agree on so many issues. . . . When you watch television, you think that everyone in the United States disagrees with everybody else. But in fact, we as Americans agree on so many more things than we disagree on.”
At the Archives on Friday, moderator Bob Woodruff kept the conversation focused on the military; the 2016 campaign never directly came up. Bush probably wouldn’t have said much about it anyway. As Bush was giving interviews earlier this year to promote a children’s book, a reporter wanted to know whether she would vote for Trump. “Don’t ask me that,” she pleaded.
But silence can speak volumes. And in Washington, whom you sit beside matters.
Hours after sharing the stage with Bush, Obama headed to Northern Virginia, where she held her first solo campaign rally in support of Clinton.