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WWDExclusive: Meeting Mrs. Bush: The First Lady on Politics, Style and Keeping Her Cool

First Lady Laura Bush opens up about the campaign ahead, the comfort of Crawford, being in the “wives of world leaders club,” and of course, style.

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Laura Bush in her East Wing office at the White House
Laura and George W Bush campaigning for Congress in 1978
A family photo in Kennebunkport with the twins in 1991
The First Lady’s wedding photo in 1977

The First Lady’s wedding photo in 1977.

Photo By Provided by George H. Bush Presidential Library

WASHINGTON — “Mother, your hair moves as a unit.” That’s the only fashion critique the Bush daughters Barbara and Jenna give to First Lady Laura Bush, who laughs and tosses back her highlighted hair for effect — as well as demonstrating it actually does have body. And the two First Daughters are nothing if not fashion aware — after all, they’ve been front-row presences at the New York fashion shows for the last few seasons and Barbara Bush has even interned at Lela Rose.

But don’t expect the twins to make fashion a career. “I suspect it’s been a lot of fun to intern while she’s in college,” the First Lady says with certainty about her daughter, Barbara, a senior at Yale. “But probably when she gets out, she won’t go into the fashion business, would be my guess.” Then she adds, “But I have no idea.”

Awareness of the fashion world is something that has been growing in the Bush household ever since George W. Bush became president three years ago. In an exclusive interview with WWD on Friday morning, the First Lady covered topics as diverse as her favorite American designers (and one European throwback from her Texas days); how she’s fixed up the White House with some furniture previously used by the Kennedys; her well-known love of books; her dissatisfaction with being labeled a “traditional” wife, and, perhaps surprising to some of his critics, the fact that her husband does, indeed, read. Mostly biographies and histories. The current choice: “We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends” by David Herbert Donald.

There were no fireworks, but then Bush is renowned for her sense of control and for avoiding controversy. The closest she comes is when she says that, like her husband, she expects the main issues of this year’s election campaign to be “the economy…and I think national security because of the times we live in.” But even there she neatly sidesteps any discussion of jobs or gay marriage — the two examples that had been dangled before her.

The White House bustled on Friday. Barney, the First Couple’s black Scottish Terrier, barked midway through the interview until Bush let him out. Former first lady Barbara Bush was in town for an overnighter, to be joined later by her husband, former President George H.W. Bush, for a cancer research benefit. Their son and current President was busy leading an international women’s rights forum, while a group of preservationists met on White House renovations. In the middle of it all, the First Couple had to find time to dash off to the Spanish Embassy to sign a condolence book for the victims of the Madrid terrorist bombings.
Despite a few apprehensive-looking aides who stand smiling somewhat nervously, Bush seems at ease, laughing readily and speaking her mind as two attentive stenographers tape-record every word. From one of the two bookcases in the room, a rag doll and the cover of “Madeline,” the classic children’s book, offered silent approval. She’s known to be low-key — perhaps all those recent workouts with a personal trainer and her sister-in-law, Margaret Bush, have helped keep her calm amid the growing political storm.

Asked if she’s more relaxed and has more press availability than she did three years ago, when fashion-related questions were prohibited from one WWD interview, the First Lady straightens her posture and says, “I think I have a lot of press availability, I do. There might be more interest [now].

“When there’s another spouse of a candidate, there’s a little bit of equal time…that’s kind of showing up,” Bush adds, a reference to the Chanel- and pashmina-wearing Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of the presumptive Democratic presidential challenger, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

At the very least, she looks more relaxed and trim, wearing a coffee-colored Oscar de la Renta suit. With legs crossed, she occasionally swings the toe of her pointy crocodile-type slingback. Ever the candidate’s wife, she denies her apparent increased visibility is part of a campaign strategy.

“I already have campaigned a lot for my husband and I will continue to. It’s not new. I mean, it’s something I’ve done for years, really. From that very first campaign in 1978 when he promised I wouldn’t have to give a political speech,” says Bush, laughing at the long-forgotten broken vow made before her husband’s failed first Congressional race, when they spent their “honeymoon year” crisscrossing the Lone Star State in a convertible.

And while she isn’t fond of the First Lady title, Bush clearly understands she has a role to play in her husband’s political appeal. “Politics is really a people business. It’s for people who like other people,” she says, seated on the only couch in the room, a cream-colored one with a faint celadon floral pattern. “Successful politicians connect and like other people, and I think my husband certainly has that quality. And I like people. It’s also a family business. You know, if you’re married to somebody who wants to be in politics, then the whole family’s involved.”
Along with the stand-by-your-man loyalty, the First Lady’s sense of humor sometimes cloaks her strong sense of self. When presented with the idea she has in the past bristled at the description of being traditional, the Texas native, who wed at 31, squares her shoulders, tugs on her jacket, crosses her arms and says, “Well, not bristled, I would say,” pausing for a quick laugh. “Who said bristled?”

When a press secretary names a reporter, Bush laughs again and tries to set the record straight.

“Actually, I’m interested in that, really, because I’m wondering what people mean when they say ‘traditional.’ It’s a label that…I don’t really know what people mean when they say it, exactly,” she says. “I certainly had jobs that are considered traditional women’s jobs — as a teacher and a librarian — so maybe that’s what they mean.

“You know, I think maybe the press, particularly, likes to put a box around the First Lady. She’s one way or another and I don’t think that’s really right,” adds Bush. “I mean, I think everybody, but especially women who have lived here, are a lot more complex.”

Perhaps that was one reason Bush was, until recently, determined not to discuss fashion and style. Now, not one for pretenses, she laughs at the idea of having any fashion strategy and looks at her aides for a little input. “My main fashion strategy has always been, my whole life, comfort,” says Bush, 57. “Since my husband has been governor and President I have a much larger wardrobe than I had before, when I went to baseball games 60 nights a year [when the future President co-owned the Texas Rangers]. I had pants and sweaters to wear to games.”

Over time, the First Lady has gradually warmed up to the necessity of dressing well or just plain dressing up. Friends say she’s even grown to like receiving fabric swatches from designers. While she admits she has never been much of a clothes shopper — preferring to browse, but not actually buy, antiques and furniture — she’s grown to enjoy high fashion. She’s also grown more comfortable talking about it.
“It’s been fun to work with American designers,” says Bush, with Carolina Herrera, Arnold Scaasi and Oscar de la Renta, being among her domestic favorites. “I have a lot of Escada I had before because there is an Escada shop in Dallas I shopped in,” the only European label she cites and one her niece, Lauren, has supported in her budding modeling career.

Bush sought out Herrera’s expertise for a “fairy-tale” evening at Buckingham Palace and wound up with a scoopneck, burgundy gown with a velvet bodice and a satin-faced organza tango skirt. “I really wanted to have a really beautiful dress to wear there. That was fun planning,” Bush says, still impressed by the majestic gala.

For her part, Herrera says the First Lady “has a wonderful way of choosing the perfect outfit for every occasion. She always looks right.”

Bush chose an eye-popping pink and reddish orange Scaasi with a scoop neck for the first state dinner three years ago, a dazzling pre-9/11 affair at which the First Couple broke with White House tradition and met their guests of honor, Mexican President Vincente Fox and his wife, Marta, on the front porch, instead of inside.

“We were the first to lower her necklines, make her skirts shorter and with some movement,” says Scaasi, noting how the First Lady’s fashion sense has evolved over the past three years. “She’s very good looking. She has beautiful skin, wonderful eyes and that long neck any woman would give her eye teeth for. I know she’s lost weight.”

During last month’s 7th on Sixth Fashion Week in New York, Bush took in a backstage tour after de la Renta’s show — something that prompted the show to start on time. She played the favorite, wearing a red de la Renta suit and was escorted by the designer to a news conference for the Heart Truth, a designer-oriented campaign raising awareness of heart disease as the number one killer of women.

De la Renta says it’s a low-key, “very easy” affair whenever Bush and her friends drop by his showroom. The designer says there isn’t anyone in his office who doesn’t have a photograph with the First Lady, “the woman with the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.” During a recent visit, one of her twin daughters “fell madly in love with a long chiffon evening dress. Finally, after much pleading, her mother allowed her to order it,” the designer says.
On the whole, the First Daughters approve of their mother’s style. “They don’t expect me to dress like them,” Bush says. While most parents are eager to see their children get started in the workforce, Bush says she is “excited” that her daughters after graduation will temporarily live with their parents and hold off getting jobs until after the election. “They know this is their father’s last campaign, no matter what happens,” she says of Barbara and Jenna, who will graduate this year from the University of Texas. “I’m not saying they’re going to campaign. I don’t know that they’re going to do that.”

Regan Gammon, Bush’s lifelong pal, describes the First Lady’s decorating style as “very, very handsome and elegant, and yet very comfortable and inviting,” and she doesn’t waffle in making design decisions. Gammon says her friend prefers color palettes in decorating that lean “more toward the greens, the taupes, the teal blues, pretty browns. That’s not to say she wouldn’t be totally wowed by someone doing a room in bright colors. She’s not stiff or pinched in her style.”

The same is true for Bush’s personal style, according to etiquette maven Letitia Baldrige, who says Bush loves colors and understands them. “She doesn’t want to shock or bedazzle. She knows you can score a big visual with colors. She might wear a dark teal suit and there are teal flowers around.” That’s something Jacqueline Kennedy, for whom Baldrige served as press secretary, maximized during her White House years.

In another apparent nod to Kennedy, Bush has retrieved some of that era’s furniture, including cut velvet pieces, for the Oval Room in the White House’s private quarters, which is still painted a pale yellow, a Kennedy selection. That’s where the First Lady hosts teas or cocktails for heads of state, depending on the occasion. “I’d say, because we can use the beautiful furniture that was here, the upstairs is elegant. I might not call my ranch that,” the First Lady says with a hearty laugh.

Bush is less lighthearted about criticism of her husband, which has already escalated into an exceptionally heated campaign — though election day is still eight months away. Asked how she deals with it, she says, “Of course, I hate it,” and adds how she and her mother-in-law commiserated on the topic the night before. The First Lady said she avoids critical television, and “I know which columns I want to read and which ones that I don’t.”
Despite her aversion to some of her husband’s critics, the First Lady is known to be more than tolerant in her personal life. Anne Stewart, a suitemate from their undergraduate days at Southern Methodist University, says, “The one thing that all of our friends realize about Laura is that she is the most nonjudgmental person we have ever known in our lives. You can tell her anything.”

Something else people might be surprised to learn about the First Lady: She’s a bit of a cutup. Stewart says, “George is known for nicknaming everyone, but Laura started it. George has a sharp wit, but Laura is even funnier.”

The First Lady has an outdoors streak as well. “She loves to hike, she loves to walk, she’s a big bird-watcher,” says Gammon, a friend since the age of 9 growing up in Midland. “We’ve been to Yosemite, Yellowstone, Olympic National Park in Washington. We’ve done a float trip down the Grand Canyon, and down the Yampa and the Green rivers.”

As for what might surprise the public to learn about the President, the First Lady says that “he reads all the time,” with history and biography being at the top of his list. As for his wife, she prefers fiction and just completed Anne Michaels’ novel, “Fugitive Pieces,” a tale about a Jewish boy rescued in Poland during the Holocaust. Next up is the children’s book “The Tale of Despereaux,” the 2004 Newbery Medal winner. “We read every night before we go to bed. We have our whole library.”

She’s not about to elaborate on subjects that could keep them up at night. But observers firmly believe she will be integral to the campaign in the months ahead.

“She’s being used as much as [Dick] Cheney for the reelection,” says Kati Morton, author of “Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages that Shaped Our History.” “She doesn’t want to leave the White House one day before they’re ready to leave. She is investing in the reelection as much as the President.”

Whether the First Lady will be a campaign asset for her husband remains to be seen. As of December, she ranked third among women Americans admire most, according to a Gallup Poll of 1,004 adults. First place went to her predecessor and now Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton from New York, and Oprah Winfrey snatched second. Bush’s mother-in-law and former First Lady Barbara Bush finished fifth behind fourth-place National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says the First Lady could help push her husband over the finish line in a tight contest. “The major problem for a Republican is always women. He’s still leading among most men in the polls by a few points but he’s losing among women by a large margin,” Sabato explains.

Republican strategist and pollster Linda Duvall says Laura Bush’s ratings in general are “extremely high,” adding, “her integrity and trustworthiness come through in the way she carries herself and speaks true to the heart.”

When she is flying solo around the globe as First Lady, Bush says she sees herself as more of a representative of the United States than a diplomat smoothing over rough spots with allies like France and Germany. To that end, in June she will host a gathering of spouses of heads of state in conjunction with the G-8 summit on Sea Island, Ga. This is the first time in several years the wives will hold their own meeting, which was developed by the First Lady and Cherie Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

“When I’m with other spouses of world leaders, you know we’re in the same club, we’re sort of in the same boat. I think we have an automatic empathy for each other because we all face the same challenges as spouses of world leaders,” Bush says.

As for last year’s much-hyped photo-op of French President Jacques Chirac kissing her hand during heightened tensions between the U.S. and France over the Iraq conflict, Bush downplays any hidden meaning. “France and America are friends. We’ve been friends forever since the start of our country. They were really our first allies. Friends can have disagreements,” she says.

When time allows, the Bushes escape to their ecologically friendly Crawford ranch that the First Lady worked hand-in-hand creating with architect David Heymann and designer Ken Blasingame. The property has geothermal heating and cooling. Rainwater and household waste water are reused for irrigation, and wildflowers and native grasses are being restored. Earlier this month, the President fished for trout at the little lake on the ranch to serve for the main course at a dinner party for Fox and his wife, which could be seen as an example of what one friend describe as the Bush’s “frugal” side.
“I think it’s probably more relaxing for our foreign guests than a big affair,” the First Lady says of entertaining at the ranch. “I know that from being a foreign guest myself in other countries, where you meet a really large number of people, that after a while, you can’t even really hear their names and you’re not really sure who you’re meeting.

“The reason why we breathe a sigh of relief when we get to Crawford is because it’s so remote,” she continues. “And it’s ours and our things. You know, there’s a certain comfort about being around your own things, your own house.”

Back inside the Beltway, Bush White House favorites include Ulysses S. Grant’s settee and two chairs in the Treaty Room, the President’s upstairs office and, in a more modern vein, a Helen Frankenthaler painting borrowed from the Hirshhorn Museum here. A Mary Cassatt painting of a mother with two children — which has been placed above a Chippendale table flanked with two eagle sconces since the First Lady first visited the White House during the Reagan years — is another favorite. It was also the subject of the Bushes’ first holiday card. Of late, she’s been ducking into art galleries. One of her latest excursions was to see the Milton Avery show at the Phillips Collection in Washington.

Art of all kinds has been a lifelong passion, second only to her love of books — which was behind her founding the annual Texas and National Book Festivals.

And it’s obvious, while she doesn’t discuss it, that Bush is ready and able to use her influence for the causes she believes in. For example, she recently had a hand in having included in the President’s proposed 2004 federal budget an $18 million increase for the National Endowment for the Arts, the first increase in 20 years. In the past, NEA-sponsored art has been a lightening rod of criticism among conservatives on Capitol Hill who influence federal purse strings.

Bush says her support of the NEA, in particular its traveling theater companies, isn’t an effort to build bridges with the organization’s critics. “The arts are such a vital part of our culture. They are the expression of who we are. They also are really good business. Museums and dance companies draw people to cities and to towns.”
NEA chairman Dana Gioia, called the First Lady’s support of the NEA “a tremendous show of faith in the value of art and of government support of art in our communities and in our schools.”

An accomplished poet, Gioia said his conversations with Bush, who included a NEA poetry pavilion at her National Book Festival last year, extend beyond business.

“We talk a great deal about art, including theater, painting, music and dance,” he said. “But the conversation inevitably drifts to books. We are both passionate readers with wide-ranging tastes. We also share certain favorite authors like Willa Cather. But we talk about all sorts of books. I remember one conversation included Langston Hughes, Raymond Chandler, W.G. Sebald, Evan Connell, Harper Lee and Truman Capote.”

Even with effective press handlers, First-Lady status often means taking it on the chin, but so far Bush has avoided any measurable roughing up, unlike predecessors Hillary Clinton and Nancy Reagan. “The way she most stays above the fray is being authentically herself. She’s very comfortable in her own skin,” says Ann Gerhart, author of “The Perfect Wife,” a biography the First Lady choose not to be involved with. “She knows exactly who she is and what she wants for her own life....She has this emotional clarity about herself.”