SMU first ladies’ conference hosts Laura and Barbara Bush

Former first ladies Laura Bush, left, and Barbara Bush take part in a panel that was part of the conference “America’s First Ladies: An Enduring Vision,” on Monday at SMU in Dallas. Associated Press
Former first ladies Laura Bush, left, and Barbara Bush take part in a panel that was part of the conference “America’s First Ladies: An Enduring Vision,” on Monday at SMU in Dallas.
Associated Press

By Jamie Stengle
Associated Press

DALLAS — Laura Bush and her mother-in-law, Barbara, talked about life in the White House — from the joys of having their own chefs to making the landmark their home — and briefly dipped into current politics at a conference on first ladies on Monday.

Barbara Bush told about 300 people attending the conference hosted by the George W. Bush Presidential Center that the current campaign is the worst she’s seen.

“I hate the fact that people think compromise is a dirty word. It is not a dirty word,” she said.

Former President George W. Bush introduced his wife and mother at the event held on the campus of Southern Methodist University, where the presidential center is under construction.

“I have the honor of introducing the best first lady ever,” Bush said, pausing as his wife and mother each pointed at the other. Then he continued, “Mom, would you take a tie?”

“Obviously, I don’t mind being surrounded by strong women. I was raised by one, I married one, and I believe we’re raising two,” he said.

The conference featured a discussion with historians on the influence of first ladies throughout history, a panel on the role of social secretaries to first ladies and a discussion by photographers about documenting the women.

“The thing to me that is so remarkable about the women who have assumed this position is how much guts they have, how much brains they have, stamina that is just beyond imagination and a willingness to rise above it and just do it,” said Allida Black, a research professor of history and international affairs at The George Washington University.

The conference was a collaboration between the White House Historical Association, American University and the National Archives, which oversees presidential libraries.

Similar conferences focusing on other first ladies are being planned, including one set for the fall on Lady Bird Johnson at her husband’s presidential library in Austin, said Anita McBride, who served as Laura Bush’s chief of staff in the White House and chaired the conference. Laura Bush and Barbara Bush were also featured at a similar event last year at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station.

“Not every place has a living first lady,” said McBride, now an executive-in-residence at the school of public affairs at American University in Washington. “The idea is to take components of the program to match the interests of the libraries.”

After Barbara Bush’s comments on the current political season, Laura Bush talked about seeing cartoons critical of Abraham Lincoln, and commented, “You realize it is just kind of part of American politics.”

“You’re much kinder than I am,” Barbara Bush said. “I think the rest of the world is looking at us and thinking, ‘What are you doing? Why aren’t you getting along?’”

The Bushes mainly talked about life in the White House, with Barbara Bush recalling a special fondness for her office.

“I loved my little office because it was — besides being Nancy Reagan’s beauty parlor, which she didn’t like me to say, but it was — the dogs were born here and you could look out the window at Jackson Place and Lafayette Square and you could see all sorts of wonderful things,” Barbara Bush said.

Laura Bush, who restored the Lincoln bedroom, said that while at the White House, she thought a lot about other presidencies.

“You think of all the challenges that other presidents faced and that our country faced and how we overcame all of those challenges,” she said.

“You live with these effects of all the people who lived there before you,” she said. “You live with their decorating. You live with their taste. Their choice in furniture or china or decorative arts.”

Bush’s presidential center is set to open in spring 2013.