It’s a pleasant home life, but Bush is not often home to enjoy it.
Her schedule, which one former aide says includes more than 200 events a year, is packed with speeches, appearances and policy work. Meanwhile, George W. Bush has taken up painting, a hobby he practices for a few hours a day. He recently finished writing another book, this one a biography of his father. The nation’s 43rd president has said that he has intentionally vacated the world stage.
In some ways, the stage he stepped off now belongs to Laura.
When the Bushes left the White House in 2009, only about one-third of Americans gave President Bush a positive job approval rating. Laura Bush’s favorability was as close to universal popularity as any modern political figure. It was clear then that she would be an ongoing asset even as his administration’s policies were being battered in the public sphere.
Her new role was inevitable: She is the most high-profile promoter of the George W. Bush legacy — a burden she carries lightly and with a smile.
Bush knows the stereotype with which she has been pegged, a June Cleaver “Leave It to Beaver” image honed on the campaign trail in the late 1990s and unbroken despite her staunch advocacy on behalf of Afghan women as first lady and her hectic pace.
“First ladies are stereotyped as either the powerhouse or the woman behind the man, baking the cookies, and for some reason my mom got that stereotype, and she is nothing like that,” says Bush’s daughter Jenna Bush Hager. “Throughout my dad’s presidency and afterward, she’s been this sort of quiet force.”
There is frustration in her voice. She continues, “I know her so well, so to me she’s this very strong presence, but I’m not sure if everybody sees her that way.”
Bush is bringing her quiet force to bear at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. The center, which includes her husband’s presidential library, a museum and a policy institute, may bear his name but reflects her vision as much as his.
“We started the programming for the Bush Institute really as soon as we got home,” Laura Bush says. She has agreed to sit for an interview following an appearance at a summit for first ladies in Washington that the Bush Center co-hosted with Michelle Obama’s office and the State Department.
She goes on about the work her husband is doing, riding bikes with wounded troops, encouraging companies to hire veterans. She also mentions their nearly annual trips to Africa, where they have been working to open clinics to reduce incidences of cervical and breast cancer and continuing to promote the program known as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, an initiative that is a hallmark of the Bush administration. The program inspired their daughter Barbara, Hager’s twin sister, to enter the field of global health.
Only after giving her “George” his accolades does she pivot to what keeps her busy. At this point, the Laura Bush who was cast early as the perfect politician’s wife — and who is dogged by the perception that she was merely the smiling librarian sitting by while her husband governed the world’s most powerful nation — seems very far away.
“And, of course, I’ve continued to work on women’s issues,” she says. “I’ve worked with women from Afghanistan, and I am worried about Afghanistan. I’m worried about them, particularly about their rights, because those rights are so fragile. . . . So, I want to get the word out to Americans everywhere that we need to continue to support the women of Afghanistan.”
Her public reserve and preference to do her work behind the scenes always stood in stark contrast to her immediate predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who went on to become a senator and run for the presidency. Bush has always had plenty to say about education, women’s rights and other issues, but when her husband was in office, her actions, no matter how bold, rarely got their public due.
The shadow of the presidency by its nature cloaks a first lady. Everything she does is small by comparison. As she said in a C-SPAN interview last year, first ladies by national tradition aren’t even able to continue in their own professions. She wondered aloud whether this would change when a female president was sitting in the Oval Office.
Certainly a first gentleman might continue his professional work, she said then.
Bush, who made something of a career of being a political spouse as a governor’s wife for six years before taking up residence in the White House, did not have that option. Though she was only the second first lady to have an advanced degree and worked as a teacher and librarian, her course was — in many ways — chosen for her.
Finally, she can comfortably inhabit the volunteer profession she acquired through her husband’s elections.
At age 67, it’s her turn.
In a sun-filled room in the Kennedy Center, Laura Bush is sipping a bottle of water. She is sitting ramrod straight on a tall, backless stool. Sally McDonough, who was one of Laura Bush’s communications directors in the White House, is perched casually in a nearby corner.
Bush has just eaten lunch and before that shared the stage of the Terrace Theater with Michelle Obama, in a warm discussion that was moderated by author and journalist Cokie Roberts. Bush, who seems to have never adapted to a teleprompter, is relaxed in conversation, telling jokes and tossing in witty banter. Soon after the publication of her memoir in 2010, she engaged in a televised talk with Mark Updegrove, the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library. One highlight from the recording of the event is a story she told about her husband.
“George likes to say how he would take friends into the Oval Office and they’d say, ‘Gah, Bush, I can’t believe I’m here.’ ” There Laura Bush pauses for several seconds. “And then they’d look at him.”
She leans back and smiles. Her comedic timing is perfected.
Similarly, she and Michelle Obama found plenty of laugh lines on stage together, though the focus of the event was serious — the power of political spouses. Bush’s participation gives an indication of her disdain for the often dismissive treatment of political wives.
As her former chief of staff Anita McBride notes, Bush was the first first lady to stand in and give the weekly presidential radio address. She made a wartime visit to Afghanistan in 2005 under heavy guard. She took four trips to 15 countries in Africa to support the president’s HIV/AIDS relief program. While she was in the White House, newspapers reported that she personally lobbied congressmen — in the White House over coffee — for the reauthorization of the Bush administration’s signature education initiative, No Child Left Behind. She walked into the presidential briefing room, an official space rarely commandeered by presidential spouses, and held a news conference on human rights abuses in Burma. A few months later she traveled to the Thailand-Burma border.
She reflects on the progress in Burma in a way that makes clear she is keeping up with affairs there, mentioning a group of young Burmese leaders she met with at the Bush Center recently. “This is part of our freedom initiative,” she says, referring to the center’s work to build democratic institutions in countries such as Burma. “The military junta looks like it’s willing to change. And Aung San Suu Kyi, who I’ve admired for years, is now no longer under house arrest and is actually a member of parliament, which — ” Bush stops short and shoots a look of amazement over at McDonough, who is now the Bush Center’s vice president of external affairs.
After leaving office, George W. Bush immediately declared himself content to let history judge his presidency. A role reversal emerged almost instantly. Laura Bush published her book in 2010, six months before he did. She doesn’t seem to revel in the shift, but she doesn’t shun it either. In response to a question, Bush says she hasn’t thought much about her role in her husband’s legacy-building. She has never been a horn-tooter.
“Nancy Reagan did it more blatantly and more pointedly than Mrs. Bush is doing it,” says Updegrove, the LBJ library director, but Bush is certainly dedicated to shaping how history views him.
The former first lady chaired the design committee for the Bush Center, which opened last year on the campus of her alma mater, Southern Methodist University. She ensured that a women’s component flowed through the public policy institute’s areas of focus, which include education reform, economic growth, global health and human freedom.
Through the center, the Bushes like to think of themselves as having the opportunity to now work on policy without care for internal Republican Party politics or what the Democrats say. But a cautiousness remains. Asked about her opinion on Common Core standards, which have harshly divided the education landscape and poll poorly with Republicans, Bush self-edits as she goes. She begins by saying it’s a “lightning rod,” then backs up and says she has not studied the issue deeply, but she did meet with David Coleman, one of the early proponents of the standards, and in principle agrees with him.
“What he said to me that I think is interesting is that we’re teaching really too much and that we should make sure students understand every principle before we move on to the next idea,” Bush says. “In theory, I know that that’s really right.”
Bush is a strategic thinker, an aide later says. She genuinely cares about substantive policy matters. But her influence has boundaries and her current causes generally link back to her husband’s legacy, such as trumpeting global health issues in Africa.
When the Bushes hosted a summit for African first ladies in Tanzania last year, Laura Bush invited Michelle Obama to sit on stage with her. The event drew global news coverage and resulted in the Obama White House inviting both Bushes to participate in their U.S.-Africa Summit this summer.
Her smooth touch seems to reflect well on her husband, too.
The uptick in President Bush’s approval rating, which since his final days in the White House has shot up 13 percentage points among Republicans, and more among Democrats, may be — at least in part — attributable to his wife.
Bush has described her husband’s painting, which has done much to shape his image post-presidency, as coming out of a pastime he developed by drawing pictures in a digital app to communicate with their daughters and with her while she was on the road. It was a hobby that Laura, who has a deep and abiding interest in art, encouraged. Now it is one of his.
Laura Bush is unlike her mother-in-law Barbara Bush — another predecessor as first lady — in that she has never seemed to define herself solely as wife and mother — though her daughters say she made clear that being a mother was one of her most important roles.
And she fulfilled that role for eight years in the White House, where teenage indiscretions became national headlines.
Jenna and Barbara, now 32, turn to their mother for career advice. Hager taught school after college and has been under contract with NBC since 2009 to produce segments for NBC’s “Today” show. Both she and Barbara, who is a co-founder of Global Health Corps, live in New York City.
“She’s very strategic and very kind of quiet in her parenting,” says Hager, who became a mother last year. “She never really demanded things from us. She created an atmosphere where we demanded things of ourselves. I don’t know how she did it.”
Barbara says it was her mother who helped her to decide to build her start-up.
“My mom just said to me one day: ‘Are you going to let this stay on your to-do list forever? Just give it a shot. What’s the worst that can happen?’ ” she recalls.
When their mother is in New York, they take her to their favorite neighborhood restaurants. Hager jokes that Bush is a “backseat parent” when it comes to Mila, her only grandchild. “ ‘It’s cold. Mila needs a jacket. . . . Is she hot?’ ”
Beyond family life, both George and Laura Bush fell easily back into longtime routines in Texas. She hosted her high school’s 50-year class reunion at the Bush Center this summer.
A group of friends “just float on the creek and read poetry and tell stories and listen to old music. That was part of the group that put the reunion together,” childhood friend Pamela Nelson says, recalling the night of the reunion this way: “We were delusional. We thought we were really cute dancers.”
Nearly six years removed from Washington, it’s not hard to picture Laura Bush and her friends dancing the night away in Dallas.
On the stage with Michelle Obama at the Kennedy Center, that same levity is evident. Obama is still constrained by her role. The current first lady may be celebrated by pop culture in a way Laura Bush never was — as a force in the fashion industry and vaunted guest on late-night television talk shows. But Bush is experiencing a freedom that she can sense the current first lady longing for.
“Mrs. Obama, I could tell, was thinking about what it would be like for her, and I remember when I first came home I said, ‘I didn’t realize I was under so much stress when I lived at the White House,’ ” Bush says.
“I remember those first few weeks at home I would get in bed at night and think, ‘Oh, now what do I have to do tomorrow?’ And then I would take this deep breath and think — ‘I don’t have to do anything tomorrow.’ It was sort of nice, but it’s still great to be able to work on the issues that were important to us, and we’ll do that for the rest of our lives.”
The comment, spoken off-handedly, seems to summarize the irony of modern first-ladyhood: The truest gift of enduring life in the White House is life after.