With a bestselling book, global initiatives taking force, and advocating for key issues nationwide, former first lady Laura Bush had much to talk about in her lecture last night at Clowes Memorial Hall. The free event was part of Butler’s Distinctive Voices lecture series. Mrs. Bush made her way to the microphone in a sleek black dress suit and immediately commented on her stature in comparison to the lectern. The crowd of 1,500 let out a hearty laugh as a quick-thinking stagehand brought out a wooden block for her to stand on. She elegantly addressed the audience and thanked the necessary dignitaries, as any good Southerner would do, and began her remarks with: “I thought you might want a report on some of my family members.”
Going through the list, she started with her in-laws, George H.W. and Barbara Bush, and reported on their good health, and then noted the accomplishments of her daughters, Jenna and Barbara. “And as for me,” she added, “it’s come to this …” and pulled out from behind the lectern a Laura Bush bobblehead sent by a friend who had found it on a clearance shelf. She said she wasn’t sure what to be more appalled by, the fact that a bobblehead of her existed or that it was on clearance.
Through her anecdotes, jokes, and charming accent, she gave a glimpse into how she shaped her eight years as first lady. Her time in the White House, she said, came down to a balance between being first lady and a wife, between politics and family, finding her role as President Bush was busy in his. “My first job was to find my identity as first lady,” she said. Her most passionate initiative was, and continues to be, education and literacy due to her background as a reader and librarian in Texas.
A somber mood took over the auditorium as she began to recount the days leading up to September 11, 2001. On that Tuesday morning, Bush was on her way to Capitol Hill to brief a Senate committee on early-childhood education. Although she heard about the initial attack from a Secret Service agent, she decided to continue with her plans, not imagining what was about to transpire. She was in Senator Ted Kennedy’s office watching on television when the towers fell, while Kennedy kept up a steady conversation of small talk trying to reassure her. Bush emphasized how different things became after that day. “I woke up on September 12 to a different life,” she said. Her previous agenda on literacy was no more; now she was speaking up about women’s rights in Afghanistan.
She gave the welcoming audience a look into her personal life with her husband, and included splendid reviews about her granddaughter Mila, Jenna’s daughter, as any grandmother would do. She sneaked in some life lessons as well, such as to take advantage of every day and to never be too busy to do something, as you might regret it—using the example of Hillary Clinton telling Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis she was too busy to go to the ballet with her a few weeks before that former first lady’s death.
After Bush’s 25-minute speech from the podium, Amos Brown of Radio One led a question-and-answer period in a quaint living room–like setup in the middle of the stage. He started by asking her about her current initiatives, especially with the George W. Bush Institute and a new veterans program to help bridge the gap between civilians and soldiers, as well as her work in Africa and her trip to Ethiopia later this month. Her books, the memoir Spoken From the Heart and Read All About It!, a children’s book written with her daughter Jenna, were being sold in the atrium.
Butler’s 27-year-old Celebration of Diversity Distinguished Lecture Series is a familiar place for the Bush family: President George H.W. Bush, Laura’s father-in-law, has also spoken at Clowes as a guest for the series. Laura commented on the occasion, noting that she felt right at home.
On the changing of the guard: “As the new president and his wife walked us to Marine 1 after the [first Barack Obama] inauguration, we felt not sadness but solemn pride. As George had said many times: We’re the big ship, America. We may lean to the left or to the right, but we stay on course.”
On the former president at home, post–White House: “When you’re married to the president of the United States, you don’t worry too much about him leaving his wet towels on the floor. But in Dallas, things are different. Memo to the ex-president: Turmoil in East Timor is no longer an excuse to not pick up your socks.”
On seeing her husband the night of 9/11: “I don’t remember what we said. I remember that we hugged each other. We were safe. Our daughters were safe. But all we could think about were the thousands of Americans who couldn’t say the same about their loved ones and the duty that had suddenly fallen on George to lead our country through the dark shadow that had fallen over it.”
On criticism of George W. Bush: “Of course it bothered me, just as it would bother anyone in this room. It bothered me, but it didn’t get to me.”
On what she misses most about the White House: “The chef.”