This week Meridian will be extensively covering the Roots Tech 2015 conference held Feb. 11-14 at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City. It is a family history conference extraordinaire and the largest one in the world. On the last day of the conference a Family Discovery Day was held featuring what we considered to be an extremely important message from general officers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including two apostles, Elder Quentin L. Cook and Elder Neil L. Andersen. Watch for that article later this week and go to RootsTech.org where many of the sessions have been taped for replay.
Laura Bush told a capacity crowd in a hall much longer than a football field at the Roots Tech convention that putting family first was the sanity and saving grace during those years they lived in the White House—and it’s a family tradition.
In a talk, and later in a chat with her daughter Jenna Hager, that was both personal and funny, Laura gave listeners a back-door entrance to the White House through her stories. How important is family to the Bushes?
When George H.W. Bush was vice-president, he babysat his twin grand daughters, Jenna and Barbara, the night before a presidential debate. When it was bedtime, little Barbara wailed that she couldn’t sleep without Spikey, her stuffed animal cat. Then Vice-President Bush led the Secret Service through the extensive gardens, flashlight in hand looking for Spikey instead of preparing for his high-pressure debate. Safely retrieved, Spikey was returned to the bedroom only to find both twins happily snoozing.
The best recent news for former President George and Laura Bush is the birth of Jenna’s daughter Mila. “They had to avoid being trampled by George and me in our rush to get our hands on the baby,” she laughed. “For this new generation of grandparents, she quipped, the new challenge is what to be called. Jenna emailed that they thought my grandparent name should be–and I’m not kidding–Mimi Maxwell. George just wants the baby to call him Sir.”
The First Lady’s Identity
She calls this life after the Presidency, the “afterlife,” and George says they are living it in the “Promised Land.”
After reporting on her family, she teased, showing a bobble-head doll. “As for me it’s come to this. This is the Laura Bush bobble-head doll. I got this from a friend of mine who found it at the gift shop of the Constitutional Center in Philadelphia a few weeks after President Obama’s election. It was on the clearance shelf. He said he couldn’t resist sending it to me. I told him he could have resisted a little harder.
“I’m kind of glad I have it. When you are a bobble-head living inside a bubble in the White House, reality can get a little warped. Sometimes you have to work hard just to recognize yourself.
“My first job was to find my identity as First Lady, not as easy a task as you might think since everyone seemed eager to assign me the personality of a previous First Lady. ‘Who do you want to be, reporters kept asking, Hilary Clinton or Barbara Bush.?’My answer was always the same. I think I’ll just be Laura Bush. I knew Laura Bush pretty well, having grown up as her in Midland Texas. But there always seemed to be people who claimed to know me better.
She laughed that her daughter Jenna was now a contributing correspondent for NBC’s Today Show, “continuing the Bush family tradition of warm relations with the media.”
The Press on the President
“During those eight years,” she said, “I tried to make it a general policy not to read the absurd news items about our family. But sometimes it was just too much fun.
“All of this may be old news to those of you who have occasionally taken a peek at the reading material in the grocery store check-out line, but I was very surprised to learn that my marriage had gone so far south that I’d moved out of the White House.
“Though things between George and me must have improved because [according to the tabloids] he was soon buying me a $16 million mansion. There were other revelations. My daughters had this funny habit of getting engaged to people I’ve never heard of.
“Maybe this was because they were unhinged by the knowledge that the first President Bush, who in their naiveté they lovingly referred to as Gampy, was in reality a space alien.
“I’d like to report that now that we’ve left the White House and moved into our new house in Dallas, our lives are back to normal, but I think I may have forgotten what normal is. When you are married to the President of the United States, you don’t worry too much about his leaving his wet towels on the floor, but in Dallas, things are different. Memo to the ex-president: Turmoil in East Timor is no longer an excuse not to pick up your socks.”
A Secure Family Moment
Because her father-in-law had been President, she had been to the White House often, but said, “As familiar as the White House was, nothing could have prepared us for the momentous responsibility of taking up residence there. I have to admit though that in that very first night in the White House after 9 inaugural balls, the sharpest sensation I experienced was from my feet.
“With my shoes finally off, when I was lying in bed next to my husband, I found myself strangely at peace, not because I had any illusions that the next four years would be a smooth ride but because my girls and my mother and George’s parents and siblings and all of their children–27 of us in all-were in the house together. How often had this happened in life that almost every one you love is safe under one roof tucked into bed and accounted for?
“As those months passed that night of perfect peace and security would become an ever more poignant marker of another time, another reality. When George was elected President, we believed that the challenges facing the country from within were going to be more urgent than those from without. The Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall had fallen and Germany was reunited. Russia was no longer our enemy. Peace was on its way to the Balkans and to Northern Ireland. And though there were serious and persistent problems like achieving peace between Israel and Palestine, global terrorism had yet to emerge as a threat to our national survival.”
The Saturday before 9/11 Laura sponsored a big National Book Festival on the Washington Mall, not knowing it would be last time that people could congregate like that in the nation’s capitol without “nervously glancing over their shoulders or up into the sky.”
On Tuesday morning Sept. 11, 2001, she was on her way to Capitol Hill to brief the Senate Committee on early childhood education when a Secret Service agent leaned over to her and said, “A plane has just hit the World Trade Center.”
She said, “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. It was here that I saw my husband for the first time since this horrible day had begun.
“I don’t remember what we said. I remember that we hugged each other. We were safe. Our daughters were safe, but all we could think about were the thousands of Americans who couldn’t say the same about their own loved ones or about the duty that had suddenly fallen on George to lead the country through the dark shadow that had fallen over it.
“We slept that night in our bedroom in the White House, though it was a long time before sleep finally came. In the middle of the night I woke up to the sound of footsteps and rapid breathing in the hallway outside and to a Secret Service agent running into the bedroom calling out, ‘Mr. President, you’ve got to go downstairs. Another plane,’ he said, ‘was headed to the White House.’
“I didn’t even have time to put on my contacts so George held my hand as I blindly made my way back down to the bunker in my fuzzy bedroom slippers. But we weren’t there long. An aid was unfolding the hide-a-bed, when word came that the plane was one of ours. We went back upstairs again, and like all of you, we woke up on Sept. 12 to a different life.
‘The events of that fateful September morning added gravity and consequence to topics and issues I’d chosen to pursue while George was president. As First Lady I was no longer just picking out about literacy. I was giving a radio address denouncing the brutal treatment of women and children by the Taliban.”
Handling the Dark Days
One of her most important roles during those dark days was being a wife.”
I was with my husband on the days he had to make the sort of decisions that every President dreads,” she said. I had originally fallen in love with George in large part because off his sense of humor and his quick wit. I’d wanted to marry someone who could make me laugh. But there were days when there was no laughing or wise cracks.
“When I looked in his face and saw the gravity of the choices he had to make. When I saw the tears in his eyes after visiting with the parents and the spouses of the men and women who had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. 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.
“And one of the questions I was most often asked is “How did you stand it? Didn’t it bother you? Didn’t it make your blood boil to read and watch this constant flood of criticism and invective, and of course it bothered me just as it would bother anyone in this room. It bothered me, but it didn’t get me and there are several reasons why.
“For one thing I knew who I am and I know who George is. For another this is America and America hangs on the proposition that what those of us in the White House sometimes perceive as a chorus of complaint…is in reality a kind of sacred music or at least the clanking gears of democracy.”
In reflecting back on all those moments of humbling and heavy responsibility, one moment keeps resurfacing for Laura Bush.
The Pitcher’s Mound
“It’s Tuesday, October 30th, 2001,” she said, less than two months after the terrorist attack. I’m in Yankee Stadium about to watch my husband throw the first pitch in the first game of the World Series in New York between the Yankees and the Diamondbacks. In any other time this would be the most light-hearted of presidential duties, but now every landmark is a potential terrorist objective, every crowd a target.
“The police officers and fire fighters and other first responders who are guarding the President are still grieving their dead. There are 57,000 people in the crowd. George is under the stadium warming up and talking to Derek Jeter.
“’Are you going to throw from the mound?’ Jeter asked. ‘What do you think?’ George says. ‘Be a man. Throw from the mound.’ But then as Jeter walks away, he calls out, ‘Don’t bounce it. They’ll boo ya.’”
“George is now worried about bouncing the pitch, but I’m still worried about something else,” Laura said, “And then he walks out to the pitcher’s mound, the only person in the infield, the President of the United States, standing all alone in a crowd at a time when our country is at its most fearful and vulnerable, when an attack from any direction can come at any moment. All I can do it hold my breath and remind myself that this is the job of the President.”
She noted, “The greatest honor off being First Lady is having the chance to witness every now and then, not just my husband but all of America facing up to fear and shattering change and standing proud.”
For the Bushes, family helped through the dark times. George’s brother Marvin who came to the White House three times a week to work out with him or just came occasionally to sit and chat with his brother. Twelve years of Christmases with all the family at Camp David during the presidency of both Bushes. Memories of Laura’s grandmother who when she met her husband was laying brick. Laura said that when she was small her grandmother “made the best doll clothes ever”.
Today she receives inspiration from her father-in-law, George H.W. Bush, who just celebrated his 90th birthday as he does every year—by sky diving.
In the informal chat between mother and daughter that ended the session, Jenna said how her family had influenced her. “Our family always put family first. They put us first.”