Who’s That Lady?
The story behind this month's cover story, "The Education of Laura Bush."
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texasmonthly.com: Whose idea was it to do a cover story on Laura Bush? Why now?
PB: I think Skip Hollandsworth suggested it first. He had written a profile of her in 1996 and thought we ought to check in with her again. Editor Evan Smith chose the April issue because it is the first issue of the new redesigned look of the magazine and he thought that the first lady would be a fitting cover subject.
texasmonthly.com: Did you have a hard time getting an interview with the first lady?
PB: Oh, yes. You just don’t call up and get an interview with the first lady (or the president). She is always in demand. They have to say no a lot more than they say yes, and they have to ration out the yesses in the way that it does the most good for the president. I was very pessimistic, especially since Mrs. Bush was at the ranch in Crawford for the first two weeks that I was working on the story, getting moved in to their new house, and she was not doing any interviews. I sent a fax to the office of the first lady in which I basically said I’d go anywhere, anytime, and didn’t hear a word in response. I sent a second fax explaining the areas that I wanted to cover in the interview. I called up. Still no definite word. Two full weeks passed. I had done a lot of interviews around Austin, but I had less than two weeks left before we went to press. I was pretty much in despair, because I couldn’t imagine writing a profile about a person who, as we say, was never "onstage" in the story. Then the first lady’s office sent out an e-mail notifying the media—I was on the mailing list—about her upcoming appearance at a school in Hyattsville, Maryland, on Monday, February 26, ten days before press time. I decided to go. At least I would have a scene with the first lady in it. I made sure to get there early and corral anyone I could find who worked for Mrs. Bush. At first they said the interview would have to be done by phone. I kept pleading my case to whoever I could find. They were very nice, really. Finally, they took pity on me and said they would call later with the time of my appointment. I gave them my cell phone number. By noon the battery in the cell phone had started to wear down, and I drove halfway around Maryland looking for a RadioShack where I could get a car charger. I finally found one near the University of Maryland campus. The call came through around five in the afternoon: Be there at seven-fifteen in the morning. It was very generous of them.
texasmonthly.com: Did you go to the White House? If so, what was it like?
PB: I was told to go to the East Gate of the White House—the first lady’s offices are in the East Wing—a little before seven-fifteen. I caught a cab, but you don’t just drive up to the East Gate these days. The cab pulled up by a concrete highway barrier to let me out. We were on the other side of the Treasury Building from the White House and not a gate in sight. I felt like a tourist. Hey, I’m going to the WHITE HOUSE. I know the PRESIDENT. I’m going to see the FIRST LADY. WOW! Totally unprofessional. I paid the driver and got out of the cab. "Hey," the driver said. "Is this yours?" He held up my notebook with all my interviews in it. If he had left . . . oh, I don’t even want to think about it. Once I got past the Treasury Building, two gates came into view, with guardhouses inside of each. No signs. I picked the wrong one, naturally. Finally I got to the right one, gave them my ID, and got a badge in return. Wave it in front of the red dot, I was instructed by one of the two guards. So I waved it in front of the first red thing I saw. "Not the tape," one of the guards said. "The red light." The gate unlocked electronically. Ali Harden came down to escort me into the East Wing. She had been Karen Hughes’ assistant in the campaign, and it was good to see a familiar face. She escorted me into the Map Room, and I waited there for Mrs. Bush to finish an interview next door for Good Morning America.
texasmonthly.com: How much time were you allotted?
PB: I think I was supposed to have around twenty minutes. I got forty. But I didn’t know that was going to happen. I was so flustered by the time pressure and making sure that I asked the most important questions first that I forgot to notice what color dress Mrs. Bush was wearing. I had to ask Ali afterward. Noelia Rodriguez, Mrs. Bush’s press secretary, was sitting across the room, and I tried very hard not to make eye contact with her in case she was giving me signals to wind up.
texasmonthly.com: Were you expecting her to act differently than she had in previous interviews and meetings?
PB: Mrs. Bush is a very pleasant person to be around. But I have some idea of what she is like around her friends, and we, that is, the media, never see that person. Look at the picture of her in the magazine standing by the fence in Crawford, enjoying life to the fullest. That person is never on public display. We don’t see her humor or her depth. She has always been intensely private, and she doesn’t really try to get into the spirit of an interview. She is polite and forthcoming, but very much in control of herself. I had interviewed her only once before, back in 1999, and that’s how she was then, and I knew that she wouldn’t be any different. In that first interview, I was determined to ask her one question that she had never heard before. After the interview was over, I told her of my goal and asked if I had succeeded. She gave a faint smile and shook her head: No.
texasmonthly.com: Was this the first time you had talked with her since George W. was elected president?
PB: No. On the night before the governor resigned, he and Mrs. Bush hosted their annual Christmas party for members of the media and their spouses at the Governor’s Mansion. Let me tell you, this was one party nobody missed. It was very nostalgic for me; because of his candidacy, Texas had been the center of the political universe for a year and a half, and I had had the great fortune to write about the next president of the United States. Now it was over, and he was gone. The president-elect and Mrs. Bush had their picture taken with every couple (or single) who came in. Later, I got in the crush of people around him and said hello. My wife and I found Mrs. Bush outside the backdoor, holding her new dog, Barney, a gift from her husband. We scratched Barney’s head and talked about dogs and wished her well.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think she likes being the first lady? Why or why not?
PB: I didn’t ask her, so I’m guessing, but I think there are certain aspects that she likes. First among these is the obvious—that she really loves her husband, and the fact that she is first lady means that he is president, which is what he wanted. Second, like so many first ladies before her, she loves the White House itself. She likes antiques and art, and the White House has great collections of both. Third, I think it really means something to her to be a voice for teachers. I didn’t use this quote in the story, but the principal who introduced her at Cesar Chavez Elementary School said that she ennobles and empowers all teachers. Finally, it has to be fun to host a state dinner and meet famous people. But I don’t think that part of it means as much to Laura Bush as it has to other presidential wives. On the downside, I’m sure she wishes she had more privacy, and that her friends and her children were around (although she does have friends and family in Washington), and that she could go shopping and have more time to read. And she really isn’t a political person, so the constant press of political life will not be to her liking—especially if the trend of events turns against the president.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?
PB: I have never heard anybody say a negative word about her. Sure makes life hard for the media—just kidding.