Barbara Bush, former first lady
RICKI GREEN: Mrs. Bush, we want to explore the role of the first
lady and what kind of expectations, boundaries, challenges
and wonderful benefits one had when you're a first lady.
We were talking just a bit about what you learned before
you became first lady that helped you navigate what can
be sometimes difficult territory.
Learning from past first
BUSH: Well, you have to remember that I lived in Washington.
George had many jobs beforehand, and -- I mentioned to you
Lady Bird Johnson just was my heroine. She was generous.
She invited everybody to the White House upstairs, Democrat,
Republican. She shared everything. And she also felt - and
I feel very strongly this way - that you have - I - I'm
quoting her - a "bully pulpit," and you oughta
take advantage of it. You ought to have every group you
can think of that needs help that you're interested in come
to the White House, get the recognition. Often they don't
get it in the national press, but they get it in the local,
So, if you're interested in programs that help children
who were born with birth defects - I remember once we had
Cher there, and she had been in "Mask," that movie,
and was very interested. Well, because of Lady Bird, I sort
of thought - now, I didn't know Cher; but we had them, and
it - it was helpful in the local press.
just learned a lot from Lady Bird. I learned a lot from
Pat Nixon. I learned a lot from Betty Ford. And as I think
I explained to you, it's - it's a lonely job if you don't
have friends. And because I'd lived there, George had been
in the Congress. I had best friends in the Congress who're
still best friends. I had best friends that lived on my
street when we lived there. She's still my very closest
friend, Andy Stewart, Potter Stewart's widow.
I mean we just had - I just was lucky, because I knew what
I could do and what I couldn't do. And I knew I was not
elected vice president or president of the United States.
And I think that's - I think you can help, and you can do
sort of as Laura Bush does. She does a lot of things for
libraries and literacy, but she doesn't pretend that she
was elected president - or think it. I think that's crucial.
People - they want you to be active, but they don't want
you to be controversial. I believe that's true.
RICKI GREEN: So, that must've been one of the primary things
that you did learn, bec- -- some first ladies who stray
BARBARA BUSH: Well, I don't think they mean it. I think
they're - they're - they just - I don't wanna make a brutal
attack on the press; but, boy, they sure gave Rosalynn a
hard time, and they certainly gave Hillary Clinton a hard
time - because they were trying to help. I believe that
RICKI GREEN: You had very good press coverage, very good
relations with the press. What did you do that - that handled
them so well?
BUSH: I don't think I really did. I had a very good press
secretary, but I didn't have one as the vice president's
wife, eight years. But I think - well, first of all - and
thi- -- this is not a joke, but who's jealous of an overweight,
white-haired woman? Nobody. So, I think that was in my benefit,
in a way. It wasn't necessarily what I'd like to have been,
but that's what I think they felt.
RICKI GREEN: Now, I read that you also, you know, had a
policy of whatever you said, you said. There weren't people
correcting - coming back, correcting what you said, and
that the press appreciated that. Something - was that something
you consciously set out to do?
BARBARA BUSH: (Chuckling) No. I tried to behave myself,
but I'm a little impulsive. So, occasionally, I said things
I was sort of sorry I said; but I think I believed them.
RICKI GREEN: And as far as the press, what was your attitude
toward them? Or - or, how did you
manage what - besides
what you described as you thought you had a nonthreatening
BUSH: Well, I had a very good press secretary who - we'd
have press lunches, and usually I got away with -- with
them. Sometimes I didn't. But I think we tried hard to be
friendly, and the - the women's press corps then was a little
gentler than the men's press corps - maybe. They always
wanted me to say something violently opposed to my husband.
Well, if I opposed m husband, I told him in our bedroom.
I did not - I - (chuckling) -- tried not to say it in front
of the press.
But the truth is George and I were married at 19 and 20.
He was 20, contrary to popular belief. I was the 19-year-old.
And we sort of grew up together that way, so we - we agreed
on most subjects.
Abortion, gun control
and other issues
RICKI GREEN: On a subject you didn't agree on - and, you
know, I think I read abortion and gun control are things
that you didn't necessarily believe in. Did you feel that
it was not appropriate for you to try to --
BUSH: Yeah. I did, becau- -- and I know a lot of first ladies
don't feel that way, but I felt that way, because I was
not elected president or vice president. What your husband
does not need is a - a wife who is getting out there and,
you know, sort of c- -- beclouding your life.
RICKI GREEN: So, as far as
issues or policy -
BARBARA BUSH: I tried to stay out of them.
RICKI GREEN: On issues of policy, did you feel that that
was something that you did not feel was appropriate to try
to - (unintelligible) --
BARBARA BUSH: On issues of policy, I felt George was elected.
I wasn't. I mean on - there were so many issues in our country
that a first lady can take part in. I mean I worked very
hard then and much more on trying to make America more literate
and family literacy. And I - that could take up your full
time, but there were so many other things: heart disease,
anti-smoking, medical things. I mean there were so many
things I could work on that were not - that did not need
government funding, that did not need - was not controversial.
So, why look for trouble?
RICKI GREEN: You know, you raised the issue commonly called
"pillow talk" between a president and his wife.
And, you know,
many people, of course, say that a
president needs a confidante or somebody he trusts most.
BUSH: A president does need someone he can trust and someone
who can talk to him and - you know, I always felt as though
I really wasn't briefed on all the really - I mean war,
peace - whatever - on international affairs. So, I listened,
and I cried with him or laughed with him. But we did talk
- of course. And he knew I wouldn't tell.
RICKI GREEN: Now, what areas did you feel it was appropriate
to put your two cents in? (Unintelligible) Your reputation
is that you have a great political sense, and that where
you - you know, you have - as far as the public face, you
grandmotherly image -
BARBARA BUSH: Oh, dear. I thought I was a Hollywood star
- not a grandmotherly image. Sorry. But - (chuckle) - what
- what areas did I feel I could speak on? Well, my husband
signed the first literacy bill in 1991, I think. That was
a wonderful thing, and I felt very - I felt that was all
right for me to talk to him about 'n' think about. And I
was really very proud of the fact that he had the biggest
civil rights bill ever for the ADA, Americans with Disabilities
Act. Forty million Americans - suddenly, their whole life
Now, I ha- -- don't take any credit for it, but I could
certainly, you know, mention that.
RICKI GREEN: Apart from policy issues, did you think that
political advice was
fair game? Or, I don't even
mean "fair game," but -
BARBARA BUSH: No.
RICKI GREEN: -- appropriate for you to give him - or personnel
BUSH: You know, I could do that, but I really never - you
know that I'm probably the only first lady you know who
has a great reputation for being tough, but I never once
called his chief-of-staff, except to ask him for dinner.
I never once called George's office, because I could talk
to him at home. And I've always thought that was so funny:
"Oh, we're all afraid of Mrs. Bush." Well - (chuckling)
- I'm not quite sure why, because I never called the office.
I talked to him at home.
I loved the job, incidentally, because he'd come home for
lunch occasionally. He'd call and say, "What are you
doing for lunch?"
And I'd think, "Well, gosh, this is great."
You know, you live two feet away. So, that was fun.
Advice to first lady
RICKI GREEN: What kind of advice, I wonder, did you give
your daughter-in-law became - before she became first lady?
BARBARA BUSH: Well, not much. I think I maybe once, years
before, told her, you know, "Don't correct your husband.
There're a million people out there who're gonna criticize
him, and" - "correct" wasn't a good word;
"criticize." And she -
I didn't give Laura much advice. She didn't need it. She
was a great governor's wife in Texas, and they were just
the best. And she did a lot there. But I did once say to
her, you know, I've found -- (chuckling) - when I criticized
George, he remembered it for months afterwards.
Everybody wrote me. That's the speech I ever gave.
That's the one I had said, "I think you're tired,
and you mumbled your words," or something.
And so that's about the only advice I gave her, because
there's an army out there - not just public, like the press,
or - but you've got staff who's hired, supposedly, to tell
But - and as far as personnel went, I might have said,
"I don't really like her," or "him very much,"
but I don't think so. I mean before hiring.
RICKI GREEN: Do you think that the role of first lady has
changed in the - what - 14 years since you left? Do you
think that your daughter-in-law has different things to
contend with than you did when you were in the job?
BARBARA BUSH: Um, not -- I don't think Laura has so much
more to contend with. She did have young children. Now,
that's unbelievable, to me. And so did Rosalynn Carter.
But - and she did a very good job. Those two girls are fabulous,
and both she and our son really did a great job.
I think - I think Laura has enlarged the program enormously.
I don't think she gets much credit for the fact that 70
million Americans, excuse me, 70 thousand - (chuckling)
- Americans were on the Mall celebrating the book three
years in a row -- rainy days, cold. I mean Laura's gotten
the library, the book, literacy really out in the forefront.
She has huge imagination.
I worked very hard for literacy, but it never would've
occurred to me to attempt anything as big. She took the
book fair to Russia, and she took American authors who speak
- whose books were translated into Russian with her And
Mrs. Putin came to her book fair to learn. I mean Laura
has a huge imagination. I don't think she gets much credit,
but she does with her mother-in-law. I'll tell ya that.
RICKI GREEN: Have you seen a change in your daughter-in-law
since she became first lady? She, at first, was much - or,
the perception was much, much quieter in her job, that --
Laura Bush handling national
BARBARA BUSH: She is a quiet person, but obviously, she
was always thinking of what - she didn't wait. She immediately
started doing things for literacy, for programs. But I think
Laura's always been gentle and quiet, and she gets things
done without a lot of yelling or - like the old mother-in-law.
But -- (chuckling) - no, she's - she's really a gentle,
very - she has two master's. I mean Laura's a very bright
I haven't seen a huge change in her I've just seen the --
as the job changed, I've seen Laura step up to the plate.
Nobody would have - could have handled 9/11 like Laura did.
And I think - I remember during Desert Storm seeing a terrible
bombing of Israel. We were at Camp David, and our little,
3-year-old granddaughter, or 4, came in, crying, "We're
being bombed! We're being bombed." And it occurred
to me we weren't talking to our children.
Now, that occurred to Laura, but she stepped up to the
plate and said to American mothers and fathers, "Talk
to your children. They're afraid. They need help."
I find her as an extraordinary example, and I would hate
to be the next first lady or first man after Laura Bush.
RICKI GREEN: Speaking of first man, I saw your Wellesley
speech on tape. And I - I wonder what you thought about
that, because there had been protests first, and you were
very - (unintelligible) - about that.
BARBARA BUSH: Well, this will come as a great shock to
you, but I gave the same speech at the university - I think
it's called Washington, St. Louis. And I gave the same speech
at the 250th anniversary of the University of Pennsylvania,
and the same speech one other place. And nobody cared, because
there was no controversy. The minute you get -- now, I have
to confess one was longer and one was shorter, because Raisa
was coming to the country, and I couldn't dump her. So,
the greatest move that ever happened was my chief-of-staff,
Susan Portereau [ph], said, "Why don't you ask Mrs.
Gorbachev to go with you?"
And she did.
So, it really made it -- so, I had to cut that, but it's
the exact, same speech. I ended with the same line, and
nobody cared -- until Wellesley. So, if you wanna get recognition,
do a little something controversial.
RICKI GREEN: Well, is that advice to a first lady, or not?
BARBARA BUSH: No. (Laugh) If you wanna suffer.
as first lady
RICKI GREEN: Because my
next question was going
to be. What advice do you have for first ladies
how to avoid controversy?
BARBARA BUSH: Well, I think Lynn Cheney's done it very
well. She's not first lady, but she's second lady. I think
Laura Bush has. I think you get your own cause. And, of
course, it's hard for some people, like Hillary Clinton
had a - she had a calling. That's not quite what a lawyer
is; but, anyway - so, they have to back off a little bit
and take it up from another angle, maybe.
I couldn't give any advice. I loved Lady Bird, and I loved
the way she backed her husband. And my feeling is if you're
president - man or woman - the person you're married to
has to be the person you can talk to, you can trust and
who will back you whether - (chuckling) - or not they agree
with you, because th- -- they were elected. So, I really
feel that way.
RICKI GREEN: Let me ask you one, final question. Do you
think as women - more women come into the position having
master's degrees, having maybe a career behind them - do
you think that it's going to be much more - or, is much
more difficult for them?
BARBARA BUSH: Well, not - I think if women have master's
and careers, I think they should look at the fact - or men,
if they have them - that - that this is an opportunity.
When you're the first spouse - I really hate that word,
but since I believe there's going to be a female president
- when you're the first spouse you have opportunities to
meet the best - and maybe the worst - in the world. I mean
you have the opportunity to meet the best artists; to meet
the best musicians; to encourage all sorts of wonderful
things in medicine, in the arts. So, I really feel like
it's an opportunity.
And if you're, if you'll pardon my saying so, sort of stupid
and don't realize that this is - you're not giving up; you're
gaining, because, you know, we met everybody. And we're
still going around the world. We just were at the Olympics,
and we - we got to see some of our old friends, former Prime
Minister Mitsotakis and just - Simon Perez - a lot of people
that we knew in other lives. And whether you like them or
not, these are heads of state. We met Ceaucescu, that horrible
man from Romania. But you meet the best and the worst -
but you also get to meet the best artists - everything -
writers. The world opens up for you.
RICKI GREEN: Thank you very much.
BARBARA BUSH: Thank you.