Bush reflects on White House years at Alumni Arena
Former first lady keeps packed crowd laughing
Published: Thursday, October 11, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 20:11
Four years into what she calls “the afterlife,” Laura Bush still cringes when she thinks of Oct. 30, 2001. Forty-nine days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the New York Yankees were set to take on the Arizona Diamondbacks in game one of the World Series in the Bronx.
Her husband, George, was down by the locker rooms warming up his arm – he was preparing to throw the ceremonial first pitch – and chatting with Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. “Don’t bounce it,” Jeter said. “They’ll boo you.”
Just like that, the President of the United States was worried he would get booed at Yankee Stadium. His wife was worried about something bigger.
Bush held her breath as she thought of the recent terrorist attacks and the possibility of a repeat. There were 57,000 people crammed into the baseball park that night; George would be out on the mound all on his own. Then she reminded herself this was her husband’s job now. If anyone had to make a public show of courage, it was the nation’s leader.
Bush shared this anecdote, a rare serious point in her speech, and many more to a packed Alumni Arena on Wednesday night as the second speaker in UB’s 26th-annual Distinguished Speakers Series. The first lady from 2001-09 reflected on her years in the White House, shared family stories and kept the crowd of approximately 3,200 engaged with constant jokes.
She and George moved back home to Texas – which he calls “the promise land” – when they left office. He has been busy working on the new George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University.
As for her?
“It’s come to this,” Bush said, pulling a bobble head in her image from under the podium and pausing for a few seconds to stare at the crowd. One of Bush’s friends saw the doll and couldn’t resist sending it to her. “He said it was on the clearance shelf,” she laughed.
Bush, a clear veteran of speaking to massive crowds, propelled her speech with warm humor and exquisite timing. She poked fun at the false headlines about her family she had seen in tabloids, such as one that stated George Bush Sr. – “Gampy” to the family – was an alien.
When her husband was elected president, the couple knew negative press was on its way, naturally. Bush said one of the most frequent questions she gets is: “How did you stand all the criticism George received? Didn’t it make your blood boil?”
“Of course it bothered me,” she said. “It bothered me, but it didn’t get to me.”
She said she feels blessed to live in a country where people can voice their opinions against the nation’s leader. “When you think about it, it sounds like a sacred chorus,” she said. “Or at least the clanking gears of democracy.”
She and her husband stopped for a bittersweet moment when all their belongings were packed and they were set to move back to Texas.
“The White House really is a home,” Bush said. “We felt not sadness but a solemn pride.”
Quite a bit has changed around the Bush household since the couple exited the White House. Bush said she used to let it slide when George left his socks and wet towels on the floor during his presidency. That doesn’t fly anymore.
While the majority of Bush’s speech was light hearted, she told several serious stories as well.
She recalled the day that arguably defined her husband’s presidency – Sept. 11, 2001, just nine months into his first term. She was planning to speak in the Capitol to the Senate Education Committee that morning but learned of the first attack 15 minutes before she was set to arrive. She watched the later attacks on television with now-deceased Senator Ted Kennedy in his office.
She said few people got to see the side of her husband she saw following 9/11. Few were privy to the president’s tears and the emotional wreckage he suffered.
Bush emphasized she did not sit back quietly during her husband’s presidency, contrary to what many assert. She didn’t speak up all the time, she said, but she did have her own opinions and goals for shaping the country.
Bush, a former librarian and teacher, is well known for her emphasis on education and early readership. She pioneered the first National Book Festival – which brings tens of thousands of readers to Washington, D.C. once a year – in 2001.
“Books have the power to shape our journey as a nation,” she said.
As for the Bush family, Gampy is 88 years old. He celebrated his 85th birthday the traditional way, Bush said – he went skydiving. His wife, Barbara (known as “Bar” in the family), is doing well at 87 years old.
The couple’s fraternal twin daughters, now 30, are enjoying successful careers of their own. Jenna is a correspondent for NBC’s Today Show. Bush said her husband jokes Jenna is “just continuing the Bush family tradition of warm relations with the media.” Jenna’s sister, Barbara, co-founded a non-profit healthcare organization, Global Health Corps.
While neither daughter seems all that interested in going into politics, Bush said she believes there will be a female president soon in the United States.
“Many countries have had female leaders and we should have been first,” she said. “We weren’t and I don’t know why … girls can do everything.”
The next distinguished speaker – Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS shoes, who will speak Nov. 15 – is friends with Bush. Mycoskie’s father was the Texas Rangers’ physician when George co-owned the team in the ’90s.
George still loves baseball. He sat in the front row for many games during the Rangers’ 2011 playoff run.
He survived that Oct. 2001 night in New York, of course.
Bush said that night portrayed every American’s duty – to get up on his/her own mound, cause change and stand proud. Bush implored everyone in the crowd to have the courage to do so.
Her husband threw a strike.