- Historic Sites
History And The Bushes
An Interview With the President and the First Lady
November/December 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 6
During the years I’ve lived in Washington, D.C., and worked as a historian there, I’ve been privileged to visit the West Wing of the White House many times. Every administration’s West Wing reflects a different air, often dictated by the events of the moment. On May 13, 2004, I went there to interview President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush in the midst of the Iraq War, just weeks before the country was to be turned over to its national governing council. The waiting room and hallways of the West Wing seemed to buzz with activity in a strangely hushed, expectant atmosphere. As I waited in a vestibule outside the Oval Office with the First Lady’s press secretary, Gordon Johndroe, the door to the most famous room in America suddenly opened and there stood Laura Bush, offering a warm welcome and a wide grin. The President was finishing up a conversation with a departing aide, and then he gave me a hearty handshake and pat on the back. We immediately began the interview, joined also by his press secretary, Scott McClellan.
Throughout our conversation I was struck by just how intensely the President felt about American history and the records of his predecessors. He was quick to point out that it had been a high school history teacher who had sparked his interest, and Mrs. Bush remarked that he had majored in history at Yale. While he was firm on his reasons for pursuing the war, he emphasized that history would be the real judge. He spoke so passionately, and at such length, that I momentarily feared, wrongly as it turned out, that Mrs. Bush would not be able to respond as fully as she might have wished. (Curiously, this was also the case when I interviewed the Clintons for American Heritage a decade ago on the magazine’s fortieth anniversary. Presidents do seem to know and enjoy history.) Mrs. Bush’s knowledge of history and adoption of such preservation projects as “Save Our History” are more widely known, but it was a happy surprise to learn that a childhood in which the old hardback American Heritage magazines were read and cherished may have prompted her interest.
As we neared the end of our talk, any fears I had of running over the allotted time were allayed by the engrossed President, and it was Mrs. Bush who finally explained that she had to dash out of the West Wing to get to another interview. The President smiled and quipped that he wanted to “let the record state” that if it were up to him, he would have liked to continue our discussion.
As you know, this discussion is taking place on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of American Heritage magazine. And the White House still looks very much the way it looked back then, when Harry Truman was in office. That’s more than a half-century’s worth of Presidents, including your father. Tell me a little bit about how it feels living and working with history.
The President: Well, the Oval Office is about a hundred years old. And every time you come in here, you’re reminded that a President is a part of history. There are reminders of my predecessors throughout the Oval Office. I’ve got the bust of Eisenhower here, a portrait of George Washington, and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. I sit at the HMS Resolute desk, a gift from Queen Victoria that was used by many Presidents, including President Reagan. Franklin Roosevelt put on its door, out of which John-John Kennedy poked his head in the most famous Oval Office photo. These furnishings and mementos remind me of the obligation I have to uphold the honor of the office, of the necessity of thinking big thoughts for a grand nation, and of the need to make decisions based upon principle—the principles embodied in our founding.
That’s why learning about the past is so important to our understanding of the present, because by looking back, we’re able to discern the greatness of our country. My job is to think boldly and to lead, because a great country can affect the world in such positive ways. The Oval Office—the history of the Oval Office—constantly reminds me of that.
Are the busts and portraits of Presidents ones you personally chose?
The President: Yes, I like the steadiness of Ike. I like the vision of Lincoln. He understood that the country needed to be united. A President must understand that the job is to unite the country in order to achieve big goals.
One of the hardest parts of this job is to unite the country. Presidents have always complained about Washington being too political, that politics makes it difficult to be a unifying figure. And Presidents have always complained about the press corps making it more difficult to be a uniter. I suspect my writings will reflect the same frustration. [Laughter.]
A bust of Churchill is here. He’s obviously not an American, but in many ways he is an American figure because he was so much part of our struggle to win World War II. He was tough, strong, visionary, funny, and he did not yield in the face of criticism. A President has got to be clear in thought, clear in vision, and willing to stand strong in the face of inevitable criticism when he does big things.
It’s just part of the job. But I’ve got great confidence in what we’re doing. I strongly believe in our mission to secure America, to spread freedom, and, by doing so, make the world more peaceful.
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?
The President: I’ll tell you an interesting story. We were having dinner with Prime Minister Koizumi in Tokyo, and during the conversation, we discussed how the world should best deal with Kim Jong Il, and how best we can work together to make sure that the Korean Peninsula is nuclear-weapons-free.
And it reminded me that because my predecessors had gotten the peace right with Japan, I was able to have this discussion about how best to keep the peace. During that conversation I also realized that when we get it right in Iraq, and we will, at some point an American President is going to be talking to a duly elected Iraqi official working on how to solve a current problem—perhaps in the Middle East, or elsewhere.
And hopefully at some point in time somebody will say, Well, thank goodness George W. Bush held firm to his belief that Iraq could be free. So, yes, at times I do think about what somebody might be thinking.
But I don’t think there is a true portrait of a President in the short run. I don’t think historians are able to gauge the effects of a Presidency until well down the road, until people can take an objective look back at the decision-making process and the effects of policy. Particularly if you are a President who sets big goals. Because it takes time for a big goal to have its positive effect.
I think I’ve got a good perspective about history. I’m not worried about what short-term historians might say about me because I don’t think they’re going to get it right. And when people who take the long view of history write about me, it won’t matter, because I’m not going to be around to read it. [Laughter.]
I’m wondering if you both could speak a little about your own introductions to history, not only in school but through personal experiences?
Mrs. Bush: Well, I will say that Texans are so proud of their history that we went to schools that were named for the state’s heroic figures. George went to Sam Houston Elementary, and I went to James Bowie Elementary. You learn about this heritage as a young student; you take Texas history in the fourth grade and then again in the seventh. So, I think always, from the day we started school, we were aware of those Texas heroes. We also had families who were interested, who read biography and who read history, and, in fact, took American Heritage magazine. My mother did when it was the white-covered hardback. And it stayed on the bookshelves. She didn’t recycle those magazines or pack them away. That was a huge benefit for us, with our interest in history. George’s degree at Yale was in history.
The President: Laura is right. Most Texas kids are very interested in the history of our state. That’s why there is such a strong tradition in Texas of state pride. Also, I had a fantastic history teacher at Andover, a guy named Tom Lyons. He was great. I mean, he really was the person who got me interested in studying history. He was just one of these people that was able to make us see that if you understood history, you have a better chance of dealing with the future.
Another thing that’s interesting is that my grandfather was a United States senator. And I vividly remember visiting him as a little guy. He lived in Georgetown. And I can remember him taking me to a cocktail party where he introduced me to Lyndon Baines Johnson. And I got to see other political figures of the time up close. I was awed by these names, but I was also reminded that they were all human beings. In other words, you’re able to get more comfortable with history when you get to see people up close. I wouldn’t call that party a defining moment. On the other hand, it’s a moment that for some reason still sticks in my mind.
When you look at American heroes and heroines, some people think they should all be knights in shining armor. But we know that Benjamin Franklin, for example, who did so many great things, didn’t always have a perfect life. Do you think it’s better for us to meet historical figures on a pedestal or see them as they are?
Mrs. Bush: I think it’s better to see people as a whole—
The President: Yes.
Mrs. Bush: Their brilliance and their achievements along with their faults, not in a revisionist sense where you go back and dig up things that you might not know about people, but—
The President: It’s one thing to be factual about a person, but it’s another thing to imply or assume in order to denigrate their contributions. I agree it’s very important to look at the whole, but I also think we should be confident enough about our nation and what we stand for not to denigrate achievement. We should focus on success. Kids need to see that success is possible. Children learning history have to say, “Gosh, maybe I can do that too.” People need to aspire to an ideal, without being Pollyanna-ish about the life of the person.
Mrs. Bush, how should we teach our nation’s history to an increasingly diverse population? As a former teacher, how do you connect with kids who maybe weren’t even born here?
The President: One thing—I’m going to start, and then you can get in here because I feel strongly about this—I’m sure other Presidents have been asked about how we don’t seem to have things in common. That question has been asked throughout our history. There have been other times when waves of immigrants began to change the face of America. Yet what didn’t change were the ideals that united the country. That’s what is essential for kids to learn, that there are common ideals applicable to everybody, regardless of race or religion, that become the principles that bind us together, that make us unique, so that no matter how we diversify, the principles that unite us don’t change. And it says right there on the Presidential Seal, E Pluribus Unum. I didn’t write that. That was here a long time before me. “Out of Many, One.” And that needs to be taught. And we never should lose sight of it, because that is what makes us strong.
Mrs. Bush: And on the other hand, all heritages of all of our citizens, of every immigrant group that has come to the United States, have made our country rich. Each of those heritages is also something to study and know about. I was just reading about the Mayan culture. Probably a lot of Hispanics who are here have some Mayan ancestry. That’s a very interesting heritage for everyone to study with the idea that we are all one.
The President: Yes, in the world in which we live, it is essential that the American ideal be explained to people around the world. If you’re a Muslim living in America, you’re just as free as a Methodist. You’re just as free to succeed. You’re just as free to live a life of peace. You’re just as free to send your kids to school. We honor you just as much. We honor your religion. We honor your individual rights. We honor your dignity just as much as we honor anyone else’s. And that ideal is a powerful message to people who live in areas of the world that lack freedom, that lack a unifying principle.
Young kids need to learn about heroes, heroes from all walks of life. One of the things I try to do when I travel the country is point out acts of generosity and compassion done by average citizens and hold them up as models that we ought to emulate. There are ways to enrich history by setting out examples where youngsters will say, “Gosh, what an exciting figure that person is.”