Up close and personal with Laura Bush
Former first lady sits down with Spectrum editor in chief
Laura Bush, the U.S. First Lady from 2001-09, sat down with The Spectrum and discussed how life was different before, during and after her husband's presidency. Alexa Strudler /// The Spectrum
It's easier to understand Laura Bush from one foot away. Her cheery grin, which appears feigned and political through a television screen, is gentle and genuine. Her voice, which is stalwart with millions listening, is nostalgic and grandmother-like in intimate conversation.
But her eyes yield the clearest picture of her character.
Her eyes, a shade of blue soft as silk but tough as leather, look as though they've just fought a 12-round bout. The wrinkles on both sides of her eyes reach for her ears. She isn't slowing down, though.
Bush's trip to UB on Wednesday night was just another night on the road for her. She gave a speech in Abilene, Texas the previous night. Before that, she was in Yakima, Wash. and Montgomery, Ala. for two other speaker series.
A secret service agent opened the door in Center For the Arts room B49, where Bush chatted with The Spectrum before speaking at Alumni Arena. "Would you like a drink, Mrs. Bush?"
"Perrier, please." She poured the carbonated water over ice and smiled, inviting the first question.
Bush was used to this kind of attention. She had been here many times before. She had answered similar questions (editor's note: The Spectrum was not permitted to ask political questions) hundreds of times, but she answered each with down-to-earth sincerity that suggested she'd never been interviewed before.
Bush's aura is paradoxical. She is confident and knowingly accomplished but warm and meek in persona; she is self-assured but self-deprecating in humor. One 13-minute conversation with Bush will leave a lasting impression: This woman knows everything that has been said about her husband, and she has come to grips with it. She's heard most every joke about his intelligence, all the while knowing George - the Yale University and Harvard Business School grad - has the quickest wit of anyone she has met.
She thinks people have a skewed perspective of her husband.
"George was characterized as sort of a cowboy character that is not like he is at all," Bush said.
She spoke of the 31-year-old man she fell in love with in their hometown of Midland, Texas. Bush, who is four months younger than her husband, jokes that she married the last single man in town. Some said she got lucky. Others said lucky was an understatement.
"Can you believe it?" an elderly woman in Midland asked one of Bush's friends. "The most eligible bachelor in town married that old maid."
However, with their chemistry and Bush's willingness to support her husband's grand endeavors, George feels even more fortunate.
"We knew immediately when we met each other that we had found each other," said Bush, who accepted her husband's marriage proposal just three months after they met at a mutual friend's barbecue. "He loves to talk and I'm a good listener."
Nearly 24 years after their wedding and nine months after moving into the White House, the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks changed everything for the couple.
"We were closer, really, after that," Bush said. "It broadened what we were working on. We both assumed we would mainly be working on domestic issues."
It's always "we" for Bush. Ask any question and the answer will involve her spouse - it's never just about her. Selflessness is one crucial component to being a first lady. Her advice for the next president's wife?
"My advice would be the same thing I tell Michelle Obama, and that would be to enjoy it," Bush said. "It's an unbelievable privilege. Very few women have had the chance to do that, to live in the White House, to serve our country like the first lady can. I had the opportunity to meet so many people, world leaders."
Bush is not afraid to speak up when she has an opinion. On Thursday, the Washington Post published an op-ed piece Bush wrote about Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head on her school bus on Tuesday afternoon. The Taliban targeted Yousafzai because she spoke out for the right of women in Pakistan to become educated.
"There are a lot of ways I think Americans can still reach out," Bush said. "I think we all, every single one of us, need to reach out and condemn those kind of acts and embarrass men who would treat women like that, who would try to kill girls.
"I think when the whole world's spotlight turned on Afghanistan, Americans were shocked by the brutal treatment of women and children by the Taliban. I think it made American women want to do something about it."
While she tried to do everything in her power as first lady to achieve global women's rights, Bush could only watch as press ridiculed George.
"It was sort of like going into the family business," said Bush, whose father-in-law, George Sr., was president from 1989-93. "We knew the downsides of it, but we also knew the privilege of being able to serve our country."
She was able to handle the criticism then and still handles it now (though the couple does not receive nearly as much attention as it once did), but Bush is glad she isn't Michelle Obama or Ann Romney at the moment.
"When I look now, I'm glad we're not in one more campaign," she said. "I don't think I have the energy for it. You need to have lots of energy. I really think our presidents are almost self-selected because they're the ones who have the energy and the physical and emotional stamina to do that kind of travel with speech after speech and interview after interview."
Interview after interview, she and George have done them all. And with veteran poise, rattling off answers without seeming robotic, Bush aced this one.
Weary eyes and all.
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