IT’S NOT every day a former first lady of the nation visits Arkansas, but last week Laura Bush came to speak at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Mrs. Bush, as the Mrs. Bush before her, always seemed to add a stylish excellence to the White House. Actually, the United States has had a pretty good run lately with stylish first ladies.
Laura Bush took the stage and opened her remarks with an update on her family: She talked about losing both George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush recently and so close together. She told the story about how her mother-in-law would walk on the beach in
Maine every summer twice a day with her dogs. And in her last summer, when she needed more help getting around, she’d zoom around the beach in a golf cart.
The former first lady said her husband continues to play golf and paint. He’s painted oil portraits of several wounded veterans, and a collection of those paintings will come to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville next year. We’ll definitely be in line to see that.
The best thing to happen to the former White House residents has been becoming grandparents, Laura Bush said. Apparently her grandma name is Mimi Maxwell, which is no more unusual than some of the others Southern kids come up with for their nanas and peepaws. Apparently Mimi Maxwell was something her daughters thunk up, and if there’s a story behind it, they aren’t telling the rest of the world. (The kids simply call her husband “sir.”)
The Bushes now live in what Laura Bush calls the “afterlife” in a place George Bush calls “the promise land,” which, apparently, is Texas. No accounting for (his) taste.
The former first lady is a graceful and charming presence. She told a number of humorous stories and even showed off an official First Lady Laura Bush bobblehead that someone had sent her a couple weeks after President Obama was sworn in. It was on the clearance shelf, she remarked.
Mrs. Bush poked fun at some of the media reports she saw via magazine covers near the grocery store checkout lines during her time in Washington. According to some of them, she said, her marriage was on the rocks, her husband had just bought her a multimillion-dollar mansion, and her daughters were engaged to people she’d never met.
She also told everyone things are a little different these days. In the White House, she didn’t have to worry about Dubya leaving wet towels on the floor. That’s not the case anymore. It seems “war in the Middle East” is no longer an acceptable excuse for leaving socks lying around, either. And that’s not all that’s different.
“I miss the chef,” Mrs. Bush said. “George does, too.”
But the first lady struck a somber tone as well, telling everyone that “not all stories end in triumph.” She said when the 9/11 attacks took place, she was in the office of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, preparing a presentation on education. Mrs. Bush reminded people the two terms she and her husband served in the White House certainly saw great change come to the nation in terms of security and war.
Laura Bush has a background in teaching, quitting once to try office work, only to return to her kids because working in an office was boring to her. Apparently Mrs. Bush got into teaching because of her second-grade teacher, whom she loved and aspired to be. To this day, she continues working with the George W. Bush Foundation and others to help make sure children have access to quality education.
The first lady described helping children as the “greatest challenge of our lives.” She added that reading wasn’t just some random cause she selected as first lady. It’s important to her life. In her opinion, education leads to prosperity in a nation.
As she encouraged others to reach out in the world with a similar charitable attitude. One smile, one touch, one hour given to someone who needs you. “These are the things that can make all the difference in the world,” she said.
After her opening remarks, Mrs. Bush took questions from UA Student Media Director Robyn M. Starling-Ledbetter. The first question was about life influence from George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush. She said Barbara Bush didn’t give her much advice because she knew daughters-in-law don’t want advice from their mothers-in-law.
But on one occasion, Barbara Bush warned Laura Bush: “Don’t criticize George’s speeches.” She apparently spoke from experience with her own husband.
The advice ostensibly wasn’t followed 100 percent of the time. After one of the future president’s speeches while seeking a seat in Congress, Mr. Bush asked his wife what she thought. She told him it wasn’t good, and the first lady recounted that he drove into the garage wall.
WHEN Laura Bush was asked about her time in the White House, she said she found encouragement, living in the same place other presidents had, especially after the nation had been attacked. She lived in the same White House Abraham Lincoln had during the Civil War and FDR had after Pearl Harbor. The fact these leaders found the strength to help carry the country forward after tragedy inspired her, she said.
Toward the end of her time on stage, Mrs. Bush spoke about Afghanistan. She said it’s her hope our country can leave troops there for a while longer to give the nation the space it needs to develop a healthy democracy.
Mrs. Bush also discussed her love of hiking in national parks and said she hikes once a year with other women she’s known since living in Midland, Texas.
The closing question was about what kind of future the former first lady hopes her grandchildren will have. And Mrs. Bush said she wants them to “have a happy and fulfilling life.”
After a little under an hour, the first lady was done. We applauded with everyone else. As the old local newspaper columnist might put it, a good time was had by all. Thank you, Mimi Maxwell, if we may call you that, for stopping by. Please come back. In, say, August, when Midland, Texas, certainly won’t resemble anything like the promised land.