I met her over tea at the White House and found our conversation so easy that I felt relaxed enough to kick my feet up. We talked about everything from those 36 stressful days last year when her life was on hold as votes were counted and recounted—"We were wishing it would get resolved so we could just know, " Laura said—to the fact that Americans still aren't quite sure who she is.
Laura Bush is the only child of Harold Welch, a housebuilder who died in 1995, and Jenna, who kept the books for her husband's company and taught Sunday school in their close-knit hometown of Midland, Texas. From 1968 to 1977, Laura taught in public schools in Dallas, Houston, and Austin and worked as a school librarian; she and Hillary Clinton are the only two first ladies to have advanced degrees (Laura has a master's in library science).
Hillary Clinton was the first president's wife to work out of the West Wing alongside other policymakers; Laura Bush has moved the first lady's office back to the East Wing, where the living quarters are. "It's more convenient," she says simply.
She showed me the Queen's Bedroom, the Lincoln Bedroom, and other rooms in the residence and explained that much of the furniture and art originally belonged to previous first families. On my way in, Laura pointed out a French desk that Jackie Kennedy brought here in 1962. There is actually a warehouse filled with beautiful furnishings from previous administrations. "It's like a museum," Laura said. "In fact, one set of furniture that we brought back from the warehouse for the president's upstairs office in the Treaty Room was Grant's. It's a Victorian set that Grant probably had in the same room, because that would have been the president's office before the West Wing was built." The first family can also borrow art from the National Gallery.
Our tea was served in the East Wing's Yellow Oval Room. As I stood looking out the ceiling-high windows at the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument, I wondered what it must be like to wake up in the White House every day. I imagined the president and the first lady must feel connected to all those who came before them.
Before Laura and I settled in for our talk, the president, who was on his way to Camp David, surprised me with a short visit. "I just wanted to stop in and say hello to the next president," he joked. He introduced me to Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, and Chief of Staff Andy Card. Then, as he walked out the door, he said, "Thank you for coming to see Laura and letting her show her stuff."
As we chatted, Laura couldn't have seemed more comfortable with herself or been more forthright about what she hopes the next four years will and will not bring.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Laura Bush
Note: This interview appeared in the May 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: Now that you've settled into the White House, explain how you and your husband were feeling on the night of the election. Were you relatively calm?
Laura: We were. Throughout the day, we heard some of the exit-poll reports, which showed that the outcome was close. But we were at peace. George ran a wonderful campaign. He gave it 100 percent—we both did. And whatever happened, happened.
Oprah: That's a good place to be—I call it the place of surrender. When I interviewed the president on my show, he said that if he didn't win he'd be okay.
Laura: Yes, but you can still imagine what a roller coaster it was. On election night, when Florida and Pennsylvania were first called for Vice President Gore, we were disturbed because we needed to win one or both of those states in order to win the election. So we didn't watch the rest of the results with our friends at the hotel; we went back to the Governor's Mansion with our parents.
Oprah: Did you stay up all night?
Laura: Nearly. We stayed up Tuesday until 4 or 5 A.M., when the television stations said it was too close to call. At that point we thought the vote would be settled by Friday. But it all kept going on and on, which meant we had to put other things off. If we had known for sure that George had won, we would have started thinking about the move to the White House. And whether we had won or lost, we would have taken a vacation—but because we were in limbo, we didn't. We kept thinking, "We'll know tomorrow." I think the whole country felt that way.
Oprah: Was there a point when you thought, "I'm going to release this?" Or were you tied to the process every day?
Laura: We were tied to it every day—everyone was, because it was on television every minute. But we weren't uptight about it every day.
Oprah: Did being in limbo make you want to fight harder?
Laura: It was out of our hands. The campaign was over, and it was about getting the votes counted. Like everyone else, I was waiting to see what happened. When the election was finally called right before Christmas, we immediately left for Washington. Mrs. Clinton hosted me here at the White House, which was very generous of her. She showed me around the whole upstairs living quarters and gave me advice.
Oprah: What did she tell you?
Laura: She told me to take advantage of the time I have as first lady. While she was in office, she had turned down an invitation because she thought, "I don't have time." Later she saw it as a missed opportunity, and she wished she had taken advantage of it.
Oprah: But being the first lady is such a demanding job—everyone wants a piece of your time. I understand what it means to appreciate the moment, but how do you decide which piece of you gets taken each day?
Laura: That's the choice we all have to make every day. I have a chance to work on the important issues I've worked on my whole life. That's a huge opportunity—and that's what I want to take advantage of.
Oprah: It must be exciting to wake up in the White House every morning. Is there a White House moving company that brought your things?
Laura: No. We just used our regular moving company, which had moved us into the Governor's Mansion. One advantage here is that all the rooms are already beautifully furnished. I didn't feel obligated to bring anything.
Oprah: Did you have to bring your own bath towels?
Laura: No. Isn't that great?
Oprah: So what did you bring—just your toothbrush?
Laura: We brought all our clothes and personal items, like soap.
Oprah: You did?
Laura: Maybe I didn't have to bring soap, but I did. I also brought a big box full of photographs to put out on tables, and my chest of drawers. All of a sudden when I looked at the chest, I thought, I won't pack what's in it—I'll just bring the whole thing! I brought a big portrait of my girls, Barbara and Jenna, as well.
Oprah: Do you most clearly define yourself as the mother of your twins, Barbara and Jenna?
Laura: Being their mother is certainly one of the things that has brought me the most joy. When George and I married, we wanted to have a lot of children—and then we didn't. We married when we were both 31, but I didn't get pregnant until I was 35. So we were especially thrilled that we got two children.
Oprah: I heard that before you got pregnant, you had planned to adopt.
Laura: That's right. We had gone to an adoption agency and were ready for the home visit when I found out I was pregnant with my girls.
Oprah: Before the election, were you worried about the increased scrutiny your daughters would be under if your husband became president?
Laura: We were. Certainly our daughters were our most important consideration when we talked about George running. But they're doing great with it. We've made a real effort to ensure that they have private lives. In the months leading up to the election, we never asked them to campaign with us, and we told them they never had to speak to the press. And remember—our girls were the granddaughters of a president. When they were small, they would toast each other with their breakfast milk and then they'd say, "No comment."
Oprah: What are some of your favorite mother moments?
Laura: Reading with them was always a favorite moment. And when they were infants, we would put them in bed with us in the mornings and George and I would each hold one of them. I love those memories.
Oprah: Were you the kind of mom who took your children to school?
Laura: Yes, both George and I drove carpool. I also worked in their school library and was always on the PTA.
Oprah: Was your house the one their friends always ended up coming to?
Laura: Yes, I think it was fun for people to come to the Governor's Mansion. One thing that's slightly sad for me now is that my girls don't have friends in Washington, D.C., because they didn't grow up here. And during their summer vacation, they'll of course want to go where their friends are. The other day I told one of them, "You're really going to hurt my feelings if you don't ever come visit us at the White House."
Oprah: Who's the disciplinarian in the family—you or the president?
Laura: Both of us are. Because there are two of them, they could really work us when they were smaller. Whatever one couldn't think of, the other one could.
Oprah: I know that you want to get the country more interested in education. How do you plan to do that?
Laura: First by talking about it a lot, which I did recently at a new program called D.C. Teaching Fellows. We hope to attract 100 professionals—both young people and midcareer professionals who want to be teachers. Those who are selected will attend intensive summer training, and they can get stipends that allow them to earn a master's as they teach. Mature midcareer people have a lot to offer our students. They're often experts in a subject.
Another program is Troops for Teachers. It encourages those who retire from the military to choose a career in education. And then there's the Teach for America program. Recent college graduates can teach for two to five years, then decide whether they want to continue—which a lot of them do.
Oprah: Why is there such a shortage of teachers?
Laura: At one point in our country's history, high-achieving women usually chose teaching as a career. Now high-achieving women can choose anything.
Oprah: My father always told me I was going to be a teacher. In my day, most women aspired to be either teachers or nurses.
Laura: When I was in the second grade, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I think good teachers are called to teaching.
Oprah: You may be called, but you can make a lot more money in another career. In this country, we say we value education but we obviously don't.
Laura: We don't pay teachers enough.
Oprah: How will we change that?
Laura: That's the hard part, for sure—but we have to change that. We need everyone to realize how important teaching is. Teachers are paid with public money—that's the way it is—and some cities have plenty of money, while other cities do not. I'll also continue with the issues I worked on in Texas—like preparing children to start school. I'm sure you've done some shows on education, and—
Oprah: I've done a show on just about everything! On one show, I even brought back my favorite teacher, Mrs. Duncan. Who was your favorite teacher?
Laura: Mrs. Gnagy. She came to the president's inauguration and sat in the front row. When I introduced her as my second-grade teacher, the whole crowd went, "Ahhhh."
Oprah: That's because everybody has a favorite teacher.
Laura: I know—and we all have a story of how a teacher affected us.
Oprah: What exactly do you want to accomplish over the next four years?
Laura: Specifically, I want to make changes in early childhood education. The president has talked about adding a reading curriculum to Head Start. If such a curriculum is put in place, children all over the country who are entering kindergarten would have the same advantage as those whose mothers read to them every day.
Oprah: Didn't you read with your girls?
Laura: Yes, and my mother did with me. If you've been read to, you start school with a great vocabulary. The vocabulary that's in books is so much bigger than that of spoken language.
Oprah: If we could just get every parent to read to their children—that would be huge. I am where I am today because I was read to as a child. Reading was my escape.
Laura: That's why it's so great that you've done the book club. Aren't you shocked at how successful it has been?
Oprah: Yes, I'm shocked! As the newest first lady, do you feel any pressure to come up with a project that's all yours?
Laura: I wouldn't call it pressure as much as increased scrutiny.
Oprah: But do you feel you must define your role for yourself?
Laura: Of course. I have to do what I'm comfortable doing. That's why I'm planning to work on education, which is where my expertise is.
Oprah: I think it's ridiculous when some compare you to Hillary—you can only be who you are. But when people ask, "Will you be like Hillary?" what they're really asking is "What kind of first lady will you be?"
Laura: I am going to be Laura Bush. Every first lady has been different, and she has used her passion for the benefit of our nation. For example, Lady Bird Johnson made a huge contribution to our country through her love of nature—the Highway Beautification Act was really the start of the environmental movement. That's pretty radical, but at the time, I'm sure people thought, "Oh, she's the first lady who likes flowers."
Oprah: I think I might have been one of those people! You know, times have changed since Jackie Kennedy was sitting in this same room—now anything you do or don't do can be blown out of proportion. Does that affect the way you live?
Laura: Not much. I'd probably be outside more if the scrutiny weren't there. It's hard to even go for a walk. At the Governor's Mansion in Austin, I was able to just walk out the front door and down the block to the river. I'll still be able to do that when we go to Camp David or when we're at our ranch.
Oprah: Do you feel a responsibility to bring a certain kind of spirit to your position?
Laura: People expect those who live in the White House to treat it with dignity—and to be dignified themselves. People also think entertaining here should be elegant, so I feel a responsibility for that.
Oprah: I've heard that you never had a black-tie dinner in the Governor's Mansion. Is that true?
Laura: That's true. The president didn't really like to dress in black tie. Because the Governor's Mansion wasn't that big, we were usually under a tent outside, hosting something more along the lines of...okay, I'll admit it: a Texas barbecue!
Oprah: So what's your favorite food?
Oprah: When you first move into the White House, do you wake up and think, "I can order anything to eat—this is all mine"?
Laura: I don't think you ever feel like, "This is all mine". You think, "This is our country's and I'm fortunate to have the chance to live here." It's like a dream.
Oprah: Knowing that your husband's father was a huge political figure, did you ever think you'd end up in the White House?
Laura: No. But when we married in 1977, we didn't know his dad would eventually be the vice president and then the president.
Oprah: I've read that when you were dating your husband, you knew he was "the one" after only three months.
Laura: That's right. And we were very glad to find each other. We'd both wanted to marry early and have a lot of children, but neither of us had found the right person.
Oprah: I've read that you are a Republican by marriage. Does that mean you wouldn't be a Republican if you weren't married?
Laura: Well, I just don't know. I have no idea. I've actually thought about that and wondered if I would have voted for the first President Bush—number 41.
Oprah: Do you call your husband "the president" in private?
Laura: I call him darling.
Oprah: I've also heard that you call each other Bushie.
Laura: Mmm-hmm. We find a lot of refuge in our relationship. Our personalities are different: He's so much more gregarious, talkative, and funny than I am. But we really complement each other.
Oprah: During the campaign, how did you handle all the jokes about your husband being "not very smart"? Did it hurt?
Laura: It made me mad, actually—though I didn't hear that many of the jokes because we were campaigning every day. We weren't watching a lot of television, and we certainly didn't sit around and watch the shows that made fun of not only him but every political person. When you're in politics, all of that is just part of the territory—and you come to terms with it.
Oprah: But did the jokes hurt?
Laura: Yes. Coming to terms with the jokes doesn't mean that your feelings aren't hurt or that you aren't miffed, but you learn to take it with a grain of salt.
Oprah: I don't know if you take it with a grain of salt, or with a whole box of salt!
Laura: It does make you feel like things are unfair. But you just know that happens. As they say, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
Oprah: And you've been a political wife for a long time.
Laura: I've been a political wife and a political daughter-in-law. And I saw someone we love very much, George's dad, characterized in a way we knew wasn't true. But that doesn't make it easier to take. You always hope that every public figure will be treated with dignity.
Oprah: It has been said that you and your husband differ on a major political issue: abortion. Is it true that you don't think Roe v. Wade should be overturned?
Laura: George and I have lived with each other for a long time, and in general we agree on nearly every issue.
Oprah: But that's a big issue not to agree on.
Laura: When there are differences in any marriage, each partner usually understands the other's point of view. George and I never sit around and discuss policy or say, "I wish you would do this or that." That's not our relationship. I'm sure there are very few couples who sit around and talk policy. We do philosophize about life, but in general we talk about our dog, Barney.
Oprah: And the girls.
Laura: Yes. The last thing George wants to do is come home and talk about politics with me after he has talked about that all day.
Oprah: But do you feel comfortable talking about your political positions in public?
Laura: No, I really don't feel comfortable—I'll be perfectly frank about that. I was not elected and George was, and I would never want to undermine him in any way. So I want to take positions on issues that I am particularly knowledgeable about and interested in. That also gives me the opportunity to further his policy initiatives on education, which I'm going to do. As first lady, one of my roles is to support his policies.
Oprah: So you have no aspirations for the Senate or Congress?
Laura: No. I don't even have a politician's personality. But I'm glad I married one.
Oprah: Are you the one who keeps the president in line?
Laura: I wish I could!
Oprah: I read that someone once overheard you say to your husband, "Rein it in, Bubba!"
Laura: I have never said anything like that. That error made it into one article, and then it was repeated in many other articles.
Oprah: I'd like you to talk briefly about the car accident you had when you were 17. [Laura Bush ran a stop sign and hit another car; although she didn't realize it at first, the other driver was her boyfriend, Mike Douglas, who died at the scene.] A week after I learned to drive at age 16, I ran a stop sign. When I heard what happened to you, I thought, "That could've been me!" Is that why everyone in the town embraced you—they knew it could have been them?
Laura: That's probably right. We all grieved. Everyone knew Mike.
Oprah: Did the accident change you forever?
Laura: It was a comeuppance. At that age, you think you're immortal, invincible. You never expect to lose anybody you love when you're so young. For all of us, it was a shock. It was a sign of the preciousness of life and how fleeting it can be.
Oprah: Were you able to move on—or did it keep you in a dark place?
Laura: I grieved a lot. It was a horrible, horrible tragedy. It's a terrible feeling to be responsible for an accident. And it was horrible for all of us to lose him, especially since he was so young. But at some point I had to accept that death is a part of life, and as tragic as losing Mike was, there was nothing anyone could do to change that.
Oprah: What is the greatest misconception the American public has of you?
Laura: I don't think people know that much about me yet.
Oprah: What do you most want them to know about who you are?
Laura: I hope they see that I really do care about people—and that I really am interested in education.
Oprah: I do believe you. I'm sure we've had some first ladies who only cared about shopping and sunning, haven't we?
Laura: I'm sure that has happened—but shopping might get a little boring. And as the first lady, it's hard to shop when you have an entourage.
Oprah: I've heard that you don't care much about clothes anyway.
Laura: I'm not much of a shopper. I like to shop for antiques. I'm planning to go into Georgetown and shop for our ranch house.
Oprah: Is it true that cleaning closets relaxes you?
Laura: I like to get them really clean and organized once—and then I never have to clean them again.
Oprah: I also heard that you have all of your books organized by the Dewey decimal system. True?
Laura: They're not cataloged, they're just shelved that way. That just means fiction is in order by author and biography is in order by subject. So when we're looking for a book, we can find it.
Oprah: Do you read more fiction or nonfiction?
Laura: I mainly read fiction. I do read a lot of biography—I like to read about people—but I don't read a lot of other nonfiction.
Oprah: What has been your greatest life lesson? What has taught you the most about yourself?
Laura: A combination of things. I was lucky to have very loving parents who made me feel secure, and that has certainly been a huge advantage. I also have faith in God. I truly think life is a gift, and everything in the world is a gift to all of us. Every one of us is lucky to be able to look out at the beautiful blue sky and see the majesty of the world we live in.
Oprah: Yet it's so easy to forget that and to get bogged down in our own stuff.
Laura: It is. That's why I liked walking by the water in Austin, and I hope to find someplace to walk here in D.C. I like to be outside in all seasons.
Oprah: You've said you want to maintain some privacy while your husband is in office. Have you been able to do that?
Laura: We have a very private life. We can stay up here in our living quarters, we can go to the ranch, and we'll be able to go to Camp David. When we lived in Austin, we could go out to restaurants—and I hope we can here, too.
Oprah: There's a rumor that you've been going to a black Baptist church in D.C. Is that true?
Laura: It was a Methodist church—Lincoln Park Methodist. We went there for one Sunday, but we didn't join.
Oprah: As I've been sitting here with you today, I've noticed that you seem comfortable in your own skin. What does it mean to you to be comfortable in your skin?
Laura: Most of us get to a certain stage in life—maybe it happens when you're 54, like me—when you come to terms with who you are, what your talents are, and what your shortcomings are. That doesn't mean you don't try anymore, but—
Oprah: But you really like yourself.
Laura: You do.
Oprah: And if you don't like yourself by age 54, you're in trouble!
Laura: Both George and I have a lot of confidence in life, in other people, and in ourselves. I am confident that I'll be able to do a good job at what I know, and I am confident that my husband will be a great president. I am confident that whatever happens to us, we both have a certain inner strength that we'll always be able to call on. And I am confident in our love for each other.
Oprah: That's wonderful. I really appreciate your time. This was fun!
Laura: Thank you for coming by.