Q&A: Laura Bush
For decades, both in and out of the White House, Laura Bush has championed key issues in the fields of education, health care and human rights around the world. She has traveled to more than 76 countries and continues her work on global health care innovations, empowering women in emerging democracies, literacy, and supporting the men and women who have served in America’s military.
Polled by Gallup as one of the country’s most popular first ladies, Laura Bush has said that one aspect of the White House she misses is representing the United States during her foreign trips, which focused on HIV/AIDS and malaria awareness during her husband’s presidency. She remains active on interests important to her through the Freedom Institute, part of former President Bush’s library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, which is scheduled to open to the public in 2013. “The Freedom Institute isn’t just freedom from tyranny, although that will be a central part of it, but also freedom from disease, freedom from poverty and freedom from illiteracy,” she says.
Before heading out again—this time to travel to Columbus, Ohio, for her scheduled engagement at Rejuvenate Marketplace, Oct. 23—she talked with Editor-in-Chief Christine Born about the importance of travel, sharing experiences and aiding those in need around the globe.
You’ve said that after leaving the White House, you felt a certain sense of buoyancy when you returned to Texas. What is it about Texas that you love so much?
Of course, it’s my home. It’s where I was born and where I’ve lived most of my life, except when we campaigned and then lived in the White House. Since I’ve been home, we’ve traveled to many areas around the state—to Midland, where I grew up, to visit my mother, and recently to the far western area of Texas, which has such a great beauty to it. Some friends and I floated on beautiful Cypress Creek outside of Wimberley. And there are such great cities to visit in Texas. I love Dallas. While we were in the White House, the city built a beautiful arts district, which we have enjoyed since we’ve returned. San Antonio is also a lovely city. So many people in Texas make a yearly trip to visit the Alamo. We did that with my parents every summer.
Meeting planners can relate to your demanding job as First Lady with an often-hectic schedule and many people vying for your attention. How did you manage those responsibilities and maintain a work-life-faith balance?
I had a very terrific staff and I did rely on them, as well as all the people that come and serve the country—that includes the staff that stays and serves through many administrations. There was the White House staff and East Wing staff. But also George and I made a real effort to lead a pretty regular and routine life. We go to bed early and get up early. George has been up since 5 a.m. today and is already hosting a golf tournament for wounded warriors [the second annual Warrior Open]. You have to manage your time and schedule it so you take time for exercise and you eat well. A healthy lifestyle is necessary.
Hosting and attending functions was a major part of your life in the White House. Did you enjoy this role?
I really did enjoy that role. The White House is so beautiful. It is a thrill and privilege to host people there, like the time when Queen Elizabeth came. We decided George was going to be in white tie. We had bouquets of white roses and we served special foods from all parts of the United States. We also enjoyed having smaller dinners for family and friends and showing it off. George has a brother and sister in D.C. who visited often and they were a great support, especially during emotional times. One Valentine’s Day was very special. We had a party in the Red Room for a good friend of mine who had breast cancer, from which she later died. There is no better place for a Valentine’s Party. We had all the men and women who had been our good friends when we were boys and girls around a big table and everyone dressed for the event. It’s a wonderful memory.
Can you share any other favorite or memorable events?
I have 12 years of favorite memories of Christmas at Camp David. The Bushes [former President George H.W. and Barbara Bush] invited everyone for the four years they were in office. We always gathered in the main lodge from the smaller cabins where everyone stayed, and the service people would come and sing in the little chapel at Camp David. Every year we had funny stories from the Christmas pageant. I remember fondly two brothers who played little shepherds one year and started choking each other. George later ran into their dad who was a Seabee then serving on the Gulf Coast. Then all of those years when we lived there we invited our whole family.
Do you have a favorite food you like to serve at large functions or when you’re entertaining important guests?
I like to serve foods that people want to eat. I just had the Texas Book Festival event here and we unveiled the poster for the 2012 festival in October and announced the artists who would be coming. We had a beautiful buffet with a lovely orange mousse filled with chicken salad. We also served fried green tomatoes with basil mayonnaise, a mozzarella salad and a pasta salad. For dessert, we had tiny little pecan pies, lemon pies and chocolate cookies—all little sizes so you could enjoy more.
You’ve also shared meals with many famous people. What were some of the most memorable moments while dining with other world leaders?
I have so many favorites from our years at the White House. Czech freedom fighter and former President Vaclav Havel, who for the rest of his life fought for people around the world…I treasure our times together. And I’ve enjoyed dinner with other first ladies, including Cherie Blair, at the African First Ladies Dinner. We had dinners for the governors’ spouses when George was president, and when I see them again, it’s sort of a club.
Do you think individuals and groups can build meaningful relationships across cultures and other wide divides?
I know we can have friendships across cultures, and when we do, we learn we have more in common than when we have differences. I continue to work with women in Afghanistan through our institute. We can overcome the perceptions from what we see on TV, especially the violence against the United States. In general, it’s not really the case; it doesn’t represent a country, but isolated incidents. In fact, the Bush Institute has a program for Egyptian women to help build a base to support democracy. A group of women visited and stayed here in Dallas for a few weeks learning leadership skills, then were matched with mentors. They went to seven different cities to learn more. The mentors were in Egypt visiting their contacts there when things flared up. We were watching on TV and telling them to come home, but they said they felt safe with their Egyptian Fellows. What we saw on TV was not the way it was all over the country. They came home a little early, but felt they had succeeded. The fellowship was a success and we are now working with another group. The idea behind the fellowship came from research by an FSU professor, who said it’s not about your education, it’s about your network. Many women in Egypt and other cultures are isolated; they don’t know others. By bringing them together at the institute, they meet each other and when they go back they meet with others and the network grows larger.
What responsibilities do faith-based organizations have to engage in philanthropic missions worldwide?
I have visited many faith-based groups that work in Africa, especially around AIDS. Many people are now living full and productive lives due to HIV drugs. The Pink Ribbon testing and treatment for cervical cancers in sub-Saharan Africa is important as a moral imperative and to reach out to people around the world. We were just in Africa in July refurbishing a clinic in Zambia with an American mission; women were lining up to be treated for cervical cancer.
You advocated for women’s health during your time as First Lady and since you left the office. What advice do you have for women on ways to stay healthy?
One of the things I would suggest is to walk, especially in cities. I love to people watch, though it’s more difficult for me now since I get recognized. I walk here with friends of mine. George calls us urban hikers. We pick neighborhoods we like and we go to the pocket parks that Dallas has now. In Washington, George loved to get up early to run in a beautiful spot. So many cities have beautiful trails to walk. In Austin, there’s the Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail. Schedule a little bit of that time for mental and physical exercise.
Many organizations now seek ways to include charitable causes and activities that give back to host communities as part of their conventions. What ways do you suggest groups extend the work they do beyond the program’s agenda?
Certainly in the host cities that’s a great thing to do and there are plenty of opportunities. It gives people a chance to actually see meetings in their cities. The Salvation Army Advisory Board met last week in Nashville. We always have dinner on the site and we went to the old Salvation Army place. Of course, it included some country singing, which I really enjoyed. Those are great things for planners to include to help make their programs successful and spread the word.
The one thing most people know about you is that you love to read. What are you reading now?
I do love to read and I love to read books that are inspirational. Right now I am reading a new biography of Catherine the Great by Robert Massie. I like to read history from all times and, of course, American history. Another one I recently read is about Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams. “Mrs. Adams in Winter” is about her travel to Paris to meet her husband. It was a difficult time to travel. Napoleon was still alive, and she was traveling through the countryside and seeing the effects of Napoleon’s wars.