- Historic Sites
History And The Bushes
An Interview With the President and the First Lady
November/December 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 6
When you talk about the goals and so forth, do you look at Truman dealing with the Korean War? Or at LBJ and Nixon and Vietnam? Or McKinley and the Spanish-American War? It’s such a different world now, but are there lessons from those Presidents that you found helpful?
The President: Oh, absolutely. There are a lot of lessons. Take, for example, Vietnam. It was a war that was at times fought from the White House, by the civilians in the government. It was a war where politics sometimes intervened and affected military decisions—in other words, affected the commanders on the ground. I think that’s a very important lesson for any Commander in Chief to look at.
The job of the Commander-in-Chief is to set the strategic objective and then to say to the commanders, “Here’s your objective, and what do you need to achieve that?” During World War II Franklin Roosevelt was way ahead of the country in looking at the risks associated with isolationism. He saw something coming; he saw storm clouds on the horizon. Fortunately, he began to prepare the nation for that, in spite of the fact that the people were not at first in favor of those policies. In other words, a President sometimes is able to see more clearly than the people do—sometimes —and therefore must have the courage to act and not be dissuaded by what may be the popular opinion of a moment.
Mrs. Bush, looking at your role—this unique, ill-defined role of the First Lady—does this house remind you of other First Ladies? And is knowing of their achievements and errors helpful to you?
Mrs. Bush: Well, there are many reminders over in the residence, where we live. There’s still one room that’s little changed from when Jackie Kennedy did it, the Queens’ Sitting Room. A lot of the furniture in the Yellow Oval Room, our formal living room, has the same kind of upholstery that she put on it.
Of course, I have an advantage that only one other First Lady had, and that is I had a mother-in-law who was a First Lady. And a lot of what I learned long before we got here I learned from watching Barbara Bush. Not from what she told me, because she’s really pretty good about not giving her daughters-in-law advice. She knows how unwelcome advice is from your mother-in-law. But—
The President: She gives her son advice. [Laughter.]
Mrs. Bush: I’ve watched her all these years, and she really is a great role model. She’s very, very natural. And when you look at the lives of the First Ladies, which I do, of course, what I have found is that the way they’ve been most influential, usually, is through the way they’ve lived their lives. They’ve lived them on the American stage. And we’ve watched them.
We watched Betty Ford deal with breast cancer shortly after her husband became President, and the way she dealt with something that was just not spoken of at the time. But she was so open about it, and it really changed the way all Americans looked at breast cancer. Her courage was such an example for women all over the United States and all over the world. And there are a lot of other examples of the way First Ladies lived their lives and how we benefited from it. We benefited from what they loved, like Lady Bird Johnson’s love of the natural landscape, and her use of native plants in the landscape, and her idea of beautification of our roadsides with that native landscaping. We’re still benefiting from it. When we see the daffodils that bloom each spring along Rock Creek Parkway here in Washington, we know that those were planted because of Lady Bird Johnson.
The President: We eat on china picked by previous first families.
Mrs. Bush: That’s right. There are so many small things—
The President: You stay connected. As you clean your plate [laughter], you realize somebody was here before you.
I’ll talk about Laura. I think one of the things that you understand when you’re in this position of high honor is that you can influence people’s lives in a very positive way, and not only do you make history but you can help preserve history. And Laura is now redoing the Lincoln Bedroom to make it look more like it was when Abraham Lincoln used it as a Cabinet room.
Mrs. Bush: It’s very exciting. The Lincoln Bedroom decoration dates from the Truman administration. And it hasn’t been changed much. The carpet is 50-some-odd years old. So the White House preservation board, who are the furniture curators, and historians from around the country are working on it. I’m not redoing it, they are. It’s been a very, very interesting exercise.
The President: You’ve encouraged it to be redone.
Mrs. Bush: Because it was not Lincoln’s bedroom. It was his office. It’s tied to American history. It’s the room where the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Truman set it up as a bedroom because when Teddy Roosevelt built the West Wing, all the offices that were at that end of the hall moved over here. So we will still do it as a bedroom, with the famous bed. But we’re reproducing the wallpaper and the draperies that were in the room when it was Lincoln’s office.
Do you ever, as you both go about your tasks, think how 50 years from now folks will look back at the two of you as historical figures?