Campus News

Life in the Bush White House

Laura Bush at the podium

Laura Bush said a friend picked up this bobblehead doll from the clearance rack of a Philadelphia gift shop. Photo: STEVE MORSE


Published October 11, 2012

With her Texas charm and familial sense of humor sprinkled throughout, former First Lady Laura Bush last night treated an Alumni Arena audience to a glimpse of what life in the White House was like during one of the nation’s most tumultuous times.

Bush was the second speaker in this year’s Distinguished Speakers Series, and the first person in the event’s 26-year history to have held the title of first lady, making it an historic occasion. Laura and husband George W. Bush occupied the White House from 2001-09.With her Texas charm and familial sense of humor sprinkled throughout, former First Lady Laura Bush last night treated an Alumni Arena audience to a glimpse of what life in the White House was like during one of the nation’s most tumultuous times.

Dressed in a gray pantsuit and pearl necklace, the former first lady began her speech by reporting on what various family members have been doing since the Bushes left Washington, D.C., and returned to Texas. The former president has been busy working on plans for the George W. Bush Presidential Center and presidential library on the campus of Southern Methodist University, while both Bushes also have been busy promoting their respective memoirs.

“And as for me, it’s come to this,” Bush said, placing a Laura Bush bobblehead doll on the lectern and noting that a friend of hers bought it for her from a gift shop at the Constitutional Center in Philadelphia. “It was on the clearance shelf,” she said, drawing more laughter from the crowd.

“I’d like to report that now that we’ve left the White House and moved into our new home in Dallas, our lives are back to normal, but I think I may have forgotten what normal is,” Bush said. “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-presidents: turmoil in East Timor is no longer an excuse not to pick up your socks.”

Bush focused the bulk of her 25-minute talk on life in the White House just before and in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. She recalled the peace and security she felt during their first night in the White House, when the entire family, including the Bushes’ daughters, Jenna and Barbara, as well as former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, stayed there.

“As the months passed, that night of perfect peace and security would become an ever more poignant marker of another time, another reality,” she said. “When George was elected president, we believed the challenges from within were going to be more urgent than those from the outside.”

Of course, that all changed on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The first lady recalled that she was on her way to Capitol Hill to brief the Senate Committee on Early Childhood Education when a Secret Service agent leaned over and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

“That night, I was taken to a secure location deep below the White House. It’s a spartan place that looks like it was furnished sometime during the Truman years,” Bush said, adding that while they tried to sleep, all they could think about was the grief that had stricken so many Americans who lost loved ones.

Bush talked about the emotion she saw in her husband’s face in the months and years that passed after 9/11. “Not everyone had the opportunity to see this side of George W. Bush. For many, he remained the heedless cowboy caricature featured in editorial cartoons, op-eds and late-night comedy shows.”

As she closed her speech, the former first lady reflected on a moment she said has stayed with her. It was Oct. 30, 2001, at Yankee Stadium, where President Bush was throwing out the first pitch for Game One of the World Series. Despite the vulnerability of the president standing all alone in the infield less than two months after the terrorist attacks, President Bush, the former owner of the Texas Rangers, stepped up to the pitcher’s mound and threw out that first pitch, trying to reassure a worried nation.

The first lady said it’s the duty of all Americans, regardless of political affiliation, to step up to their own respective pitcher’s mound to fight for what they believe in. “The greatest honor of being first lady was having the chance to witness, every now and then, not just my husband, but all of America facing up to the fear and shattering change and standing proud,” she said.

After her talk, Bush participated in a question-and-answer session. Questions ranged from what books she’s reading—“Wolf Hall,” a novel by Hillary Mantel—to the prospects of a female president in the U.S. “I think there will be one soon,” she said. “Absolutely, there has to be one in the United States.”