She's been promoting education reform, global health and literacy — from Dallas to Afghanistan — and touring the country with her best-selling memoir, Spoken from the Heart. This weekend, former first lady Laura Bush heads to Austin to kick off the 15th annual Texas Book Festival, which the voracious reader and onetime librarian launched when she was still in the Texas Governor's Mansion.
In an interview late last month with The Texas Tribune, Bush compared life in the mansion with life in the White House, described her newfound freedom living in Dallas and explained why she kept her personal politics out of her husband's presidency. An edited transcript and full audio follow.
TT: You’ll be a guest at this year's book festival, reading from your own book. How often have you been back to attend the festival, and how much resemblance does it have to its early days?
Audio: Laura Bush
Bush: The Texas Book Festival is so terrific. It’s really one of the premier book festivals anywhere. It’s different from a lot of other festivals because it’s in the Capitol, actually in the Texas State Capitol, and on the grounds surrounding the Capitol. I think people really love that. They love to be in the Capitol, to use those committee hearing rooms for authors. This year we’re not going to be on the Senate and House floors because they’re undergoing some renovation. We will have tents outside for authors, a lot like the National Book Festival does, where the authors are under tents on the Mall. We started the book festival 15 years ago with a focus on Texas writers and thought we would mainly have Texas writers. Now, of course, we’ve had writers from around the world. I have not been back that often since I moved to Washington. Many of my friends serve on both the advisory board and on the Authors Selection Committee, so I’m always aware of it.
TT: You’ve been making the rounds doing publicity for your own book. Was it a welcome thing to be back in the public eye, or was it a reminder of how much you like your new life now?
Bush: No, it was really fun. I mean, the book tour is very exciting and a lot of fun, and it was very successful. My book has sold really well, which I appreciated. But it also gave me a chance to see friends all over the country when I traveled. I think, starting May 4, the day the book published, I went to 27 different cities until the end of the tour. I did a lot of signings at bookstores, which I love doing. I love being with booksellers. They all gave me their highest recommendations of new books that they were selling a lot of. So that was fun also.
TT: When you were first lady of Texas, we saw kind of the tip of the iceberg, just the part that was visible to the public. Talk to me a little bit about what it was like behind the scenes in the Governor’s Mansion, watching everything that was going on next door in the Capitol.
Bush: One of the great things about that is you do live right across the street from the Capitol, right across from the Governor’s Office, which is in the Capitol. And one of the things that George liked best about being governor is that you are in the Capitol with the House on one side of you and the Senate on the other. I think that was one of the disappointments really about moving to Washington. I don’t think either of us really realized what a divide there is between the Capitol in Washington and the White House, which is a mile down the road. In the Texas Capitol, George talked to senators and the House members every day when he was there at work. I think it led to a more congenial, collegial atmosphere. When George was elected [in Texas], our lieutenant governor and speaker were both Democrats, but they ended up being great friends. It was a great opportunity to work together. Sadly, that was not the case in Washington.
TT: How was life different when you were first lady of Texas, compared to being first lady of the United States?
Bush: Well, I had a lot more anonymity, of course, in Texas. I wrote about that in my book. I went for walks every day. I’d walk out of the governor’s house and walk all the way down to Town Lake and walk all around Town Lake. I could do that with friends and without [Department of Public Safety] officers. There was a lot more freedom to life then, although I was very active and traveled around our state a lot speaking. I did a lot of things that had to do with historical preservation when George was governor. I convened a summit on early childhood education, and then state legislation followed that. For the first time ever, the state actually contributed to Head Start, which was a federal program to make sure children who were in Head Start classes in Texas were also learning pre-reading and pre-skills so when they started first grade they really did have a head start. You know, I think it was easier to work on issues there just because of the smaller size of the state — even though Texas is a very large state.
TT: Do you consider either a better time in your life?
Bush: You mean when George was governor compared to president? No. I mean, being first lady of the United States is a huge, huge honor and privilege and opportunity, and I loved that. Even though I lost some anonymity, I still now have a private life in Texas. George and I go out to eat at restaurants. I’m getting ready to meet some friends right now at a restaurant here in Dallas. I shop. All our furniture was in our ranch house, so I’ve been slowly furnishing our Dallas house, and that’s been a lot of fun. Dallas is a shopper’s paradise — the Design Center and everything. I’ve loved that.
TT: Do you feel like you have a lot more freedom right now, or do you still feel like your every move is watched by security? What’s your day-to-day life like now?
Bush: Of course I still have Secret Service, and so does George, but there’s a lot more freedom. I still travel a lot. I still give a lot of speeches, such as at the National Book Festival as an author. I was at the U.N. for International Literacy Day, because I’m still the Honorary Ambassador of the Decade of Literacy for UNESCO, the U.N. agency that has education as part of its charge. So I still do a lot of things that are part of what my life was when George was president, but I don’t have every responsibility that I had when I was first lady.
TT: Let’s talk a little bit about that responsibility. You found yourself back in the headlines not so long ago for taking positions on gay marriage and abortion that appeared to be at odds with your husband and with the GOP. What do you say to the critics who argue you had a responsibility to come forward sooner, or who suggest you maybe hid those opinions from view?
Bush: Well, I didn’t hide them from view. They were very well known from the first day George was elected, when Katie Couric asked me the question. I’m not elected. I was not elected. George is. He’s the one who’s elected. I was not the elected official. It was not my responsibility, I didn’t think, to speak out in ways to get in some sort of debate with him. I just didn’t see that as part of my role.
TT: I’m curious to know, what do you think about the Tea Party tide? Have you been watching this development, and what do you think it means for the future of the GOP?
Bush: I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to watch from the sidelines. That’s what George and I are doing. We’re not in politics anymore, and we don’t really have to answer politics sort of questions. We're working on policy instead.
TT: I am interested in talking about the Bush Library. How involved are you in the progress that’s being made there?
Bush: I’m playing a large role. I’ve been the head of the design committee. The building is going to be really beautiful. It’s also going to be LEED platinum, which is the highest LEED designation. We’re both excited about that. And also, as part of the Bush Institute, we have the Women’s Initiative, which I’m the head of. The Bush Institute is focused on four areas, which are education, global health, economic opportunity and human freedom. The Women’s Initiative crosses all four of those focus areas. I hosted the Afghan Women’s Council here in March with a focus on literacy and education for girls and women in Afghanistan.
TT: I’ve heard you’ve become friendly with Michelle Obama. I’m curious what you think of her and the role she’s playing in the White House.
Bush: There’s sort of a club that everybody who was a first lady is a member of. I know what she’s going through now. I know what life is like to live there. You know, I knew that already from my mother-in-law and my friendship with Lady Bird Johnson, who I got to know when George and I lived in Austin — we hosted the gala luncheon on the day of the opening of the Wildflower Center. Because of that I think that there’s a friendship that develops between all the first ladies, but, no, I don’t talk to her that often.
TT: Back to books: Tell me what you’re reading right now.
Bush: Right now I just picked up Bonhoeffer's biography. George just finished it, and I just started it last night. It’s really good. There are two other fiction books I’ve read recently. One of them, who author, Abraham Verghese, will be at the Texas Book Festival, is Cutting for Stone [a novel set in an Ethiopian hospital]. I enjoyed it a lot. And my girls are both reading it. Jenna just went to Ethiopia with CARE. And so actually, when I was in New York last week for the Clinton Global Initiative, I met with the Ethiopian minister who was there. I met with him separately to talk about a partnership the Bush Institute can have with Ethiopia and Dr. Mark Dybul, who’s our fellow in global health. And Dr. Dybul, who was head of [the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] when George was president, is doing this research now to develop a way to be able to deliver health care to women at the only time, in many cases, when they seek health care in the developing world, and that’s when they come in to have a baby. So Cutting for Stone is a great one. Another one that I love is historical fiction about the Civil War called My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira.
TT: Did you read [Curtis Sittenfeld's book] An American Wife, and if so, what did you think of it?
Bush: No, of course I didn’t read that. I lived my life. I didn’t need to read somebody’s made up version of it.
TT: Can you share with me some of your fondest memories from being in the Governor’s Mansion here in Texas, and from the book festival?
Bush: Well, let me just share some fond memories from the Texas Book Festival first. I remember on the very, very first one I was worried for weeks about it — worried about the weather, about anything that could go wrong — and so we convened the first of the Texas Book Festivals in the Texas Senate, on the Senate floor, to give our award, the Texas Book Festival Award for lifetime achievement. And right then a jackhammer starts up right outside the window, construction that, of course, we didn’t know about. And so we sent somebody out right away to ask if they would put it off until the Monday after the book festival, which they did. But then I just got a headache. I was so nervous that I went back across the street to the governor’s house and got back into bed. Within a few minutes, two of my friends, one of whom has been the chairman of the advisory board, ran over to the Governor’s Mansion and they said, “Everything’s going great, everyone loves it, so come back over.” So I did. It was really terrific.
Another memory I have is of Kinky Friedman. We always had a reception at the Governor’s Mansion on the Friday night before the Texas Book Festival Gala, and then we had the Author Coffee in the morning before the book festival started. Kinky had been at the reception the night before, and he was there early in the morning for the coffee because we used to do local television from the Governor’s Mansion to encourage people to come down to the book festival that day. George looked at Kinky — who is in exactly the same coat, the same hat, with the same cigar that he’d had the night before — and thought he’d just slept down there on one of the couches at the governor’s house. There were a lot of very funny moments.
As far as memories in Austin, my girls were in seventh through the 12th grade there. They graduated from Austin High when George was governor, and so of course that was a very, very important part of our family life. Those are really the memories they have of growing up. A lot of my happiest memories are Christmas at the Governor’s Mansion and family times that we had living there. And it’s a lovely home. I hope it’ll be quickly restored now that they’ve started to work on it after the fire, which was so sad and devastating.
TT: Would you mind giving me your thoughts on the upcoming governor’s election?
Bush: Oh, yeah, sure, absolutely. We’re supporting Gov. Perry.
TT: Any parting words on the book festival?
Bush: I just want to encourage people to come. It’s always so much fun, and there’s something for everyone there.