Laura Bush shared her insights Wednesday night on living in the White House before and after 9/11, her life after returning to Texas and what books she has downloaded on her iPad.
The former first lady gave a 25-minute speech followed by a question-and-answer session in Alumni Arena on the University at Buffalo’s North Campus in Amherst.
Bush was the second speaker in the 26th annual UB Distinguished Speakers Series, and the first-ever first lady invited to speak at the university. The wife of the 43rd president, George W. Bush, was given a standing ovation inside the packed arena after being introduced by UB President Satish K. Tripathi.
“When you live in the White House, … reality can get a little warped,” she said.
Perhaps no day at the White House was as unsettling as 9/11. Bush recalled that she was attending a Senate committee briefing on early childhood education when she was told about the first plane that struck the World Trade Center.
She told of then-Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts keeping up a steady stream of small talk in vain, trying to steady the tense atmosphere.
After catching the audience up on how her family has been faring nearly four years after leaving the White House, and being out the public spotlight, Bush shared her lifelong love of reading. She said she recently read Hilary Mantel’s award-winning historical novel, “Wolf Hall,” an account of Thomas Cromwell’s ascent to power in the British court of King Henry VIII.
“Reading is not just a cause I chose as first lady; it’s one my guiding passions,” Bush said.
As a former educator, Bush’s passion for literacy and reading is no surprise. Before she married the future president, Laura Welch taught second grade for several years in Dallas after earning a bachelor’s degree in education from Southern Methodist University in 1968.
She later attended the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned a master’s degree in library science and worked for several years as a school librarian.
In 1977, she met and married George W. Bush, who went on to become Texas governor on his path to the presidency.
Laura Bush said that not even the experience of knowing George H.W. Bush, her father-in-law and the nation’s 41st president, could prepare her for the harsh glare of living in the White House.
While she acknowledged having been bothered by criticism of her husband, she didn’t let it get to her. She referred to what she called the blathering and bloviating of his critics and called it “a kind of sacred music, or at least the clanking of democracy.”
Laura Bush, who avoided controversy as first lady, said that some people might mistakenly append to her the stereotype of a 1950s housewife.
She does have opinions, she said, but has never been compelled to share all of them.
She recalled the day she and her husband left the White House in January 2009 as bittersweet, but one in which she did not feel sadness, but a solemn pride. She recently dedicated the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women’s Health at Texas Tech University.
Bush, mother of 30-year-old twin daughters, Jenna Hager and Barbara Bush, said she refers to her life now as “the afterlife,” while her husband calls their home in Crawford, Texas, “the promised land.”