First Lady Laura Bush – Interview by Chet Cooper

Circa 2004
Laura Bush

Long before her husband became the 43rd President of the United States of America, Mrs. Bush was involved with women’s health issues, volunteering with the Susan G. Komen Foundation to help raise awareness about breast cancer. As her husband ascended the ranks politically, Mrs. Bush’s area of influence continued to grow and she embraced the opportunities that came with her new role. In Texas, she worked with the Governors Spouse Program of the National Governors Association to promote women’s health. She also worked with the Adopt-A-Caseworker programs and Rainbow Rooms throughout Texas; Rainbow Rooms provide abused and neglected children with basic necessities such as clothing and diapers. While in Texas, the First Lady also created a program geared toward the healthy development of infants. She is now sharing this same helpful information with new parents across the country through the Healthy Start, Grow Smart magazine series, which outlines activities to stimulate infant brain development and build skills that children will need once they start school.

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Mrs. Bush attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in education in 1968. She later earned a Master of Library Science degree in 1973 from the University of Texas at Austin. It was her passion for education and reading, exemplified by her work as a Texas public school teacher and librarian, that later prompted her national initiative called “Ready to Read, Ready to Learn”. The initiative aims to ensure that all young children are ready to read and learn when they enter their first classrooms, and that once there they have well-trained, qualified teachers, especially in our most impoverished neighborhoods.

In association with the Library of Congress, Mrs. Bush created the National Book Festival, modeled after her successful Texas Book Festival. Now approaching its fourth year, the festival features award-winning authors from across the nation and was attended by more than 50,000 people in 2003.

After the tragedy of September 11, Mrs. Bush’s voice grew even louder when she boldly joined the worldwide effort to stop the Taliban’s oppression of women and children in Afghanistan. The only first lady in history to record a full presidential radio address, Mrs. Bush spoke out on the plight of women and children under the oppressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In her speeches and public appearances, she expresses what most Americans believe: that every human being should be treated with dignity.

First Lady Laura Bush entered the Map Room of the White House with her staff and a gentle, yet undeniable focus for her interview with ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper. Defying expectations of a quiet, almost reserved woman, she spoke with unexpected candor and wit about her happiness with President George W. Bush, as well as her advocacy in social and health issues.

Chet Cooper: How did you and your husband first meet?

Laura Bush: We grew up in the same town. We went to school together only one year, the seventh grade.

CC: Did you actually know him then?

LB: Very vaguely we knew each other; we probably never spoke to each other. But then [his family] moved to Houston. Then he moved back to Midland after graduate school, and I was home for a week in the summer visiting my parents. Our good friends, Joey and Jan O’Neill, fixed us up—actually asked us both to dinner at their house.

CC: So it was a blind date?

LB: Set up as a blind date. And then we married three months later.

CC: You don’t hear too many success stories like that.

LB: (laughs) Then I moved back to Midland—at that point I was living in Austin and working as a school librarian—and we lived there for about the first 10 years of our marriage, which was fun—my parents were there, a lot of our long-time friends still live there, and literally, our life-long friends. Those were the years that we had our babies, and it was really nice to have their grandparents in the same town. My father is no longer living, but I’m so happy we had those few years when the girls were babies to be in the same town with him.

CC: Does anybody ever ask you, “So what does your husband do?”

LB: Yes.

CC: They have?

LB: I mean, not since he’s been President. (laughs) But when he was Governor.

CC: Really?

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LB: Actually, somebody asked him what he did. When he was Governor—at a party. (laughs)

CC: Have you ever thought about what you might be doing today if you hadn’t married?

LB: Sure, of course. I guess everyone thinks about that some. I’m really glad I married him, and I’m glad I’m having the opportunity to do this—but, mainly, I’m just glad to have him as my husband.

CC: Now you and your husband spend most of your time in Washington, D.C., and are obviously under an exorbitant amount of stress on a daily basis. How do you handle it?

LB: Well, of course it’s stressful. This is a very stressful and challenging time for everybody in our country and a lot of people around the world, as well. But we both have a lot of stamina, and we’ve got a lot of focus and a lot of discipline, and that helps.

Laura Bush and Chet Cooper
Chet Cooper and Laura Bush

CC: As with your mother-in-law, literacy and education have always been important issues to you. How did you then become involved with the Heart Truth awareness campaign?

LB: When I found out that heart disease was the number one killer among American women, I was really surprised—I had no idea. I had just assumed cancer was. So I knew that if I didn’t know, a lot of other women wouldn’t know [either].

CC: And if women aren’t aware of what’s happening, they’ll be less likely to seek the help they need.

LB: Part of the reason for wanting to let women know [about the statistics behind heart disease] is because women don’t think of it as a woman’s disease—so if they have symptoms, they don’t go to the hospital. They think they’re having anxiety if their heart is racing or if they’re having shortness of breath or other symptoms [they don’t realize might be] symptoms of a heart attack. They would send their husbands or their boyfriends if they had any symptoms; they’d send them immediately to the hospital or take them to the hospital themselves. But, in general, they put off going to the hospital at least an hour longer than men do. Because of that, [women] suffer more damage. Actually, more women die of heart disease than men do. It’s the number one killer of men and women in the United States, the number one leading cause of death.

CC: How were these statistics first brought to your attention?

LB: Actually, [they] came from the Department of Health. Somebody at the Department of Health had devised this idea of the Red Dress project, and asked American designers to design red dresses as a reminder to women that heart disease is the leading cause of death. And the red dresses travel around the United States. When you go see the red dresses in a city, you can also then have all the screenings, free screenings. So it’s a way to just really draw attention. It’s very similar to the pink ribbons that started 25 years ago for breast cancer. And, in fact, today, this afternoon, we’re hosting the start of the Race for the Cure, the race for the breast cancer cure, here at the White House. Our really good friend, Nancy Brinker, was the one who started the Komen Foundation for her sister, Susan Komen, who died of breast cancer.

CC: When will the Race for the Cure itself be held?

LB: The Race for the Cure will be this weekend.

CC: Okay. Because I didn’t bring my sneakers.

LB: (laughs) You should have them for that, and your pink clothes.

CC: Have you been volunteering for the Komen Foundation from the beginning?

LB: I’ve always been involved with breast cancer work. The Komen Foundation was actually founded in Dallas, and when I lived there before George was elected Governor, I did a lot of work with the Komen Foundation. Breast cancer is a very frightening disease for women; there’s not a cure, really. We know that if women find out they have breast cancer early, their chances of survival are increased. So the whole point of the Komen Foundation and other breast cancer awareness campaigns was to let women know about early detection and what they could do to be responsible for their own health.

The Red Dress campaign is really based on that same idea, and that is to just make women aware that heart disease is a killer of women, so they will seek help for themselves. But also, the really good news about heart disease is that it is often preventable, that you can make really fairly small lifestyle changes to protect yourself from heart disease. You can exercise; you can watch your weight so you don’t become obese. A large percentage of women who have heart attacks are obese. You can get the screenings that you need to get—your blood pressure screenings and cholesterol screenings—and you can see your doctor and find out what your risks are for heart disease.

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CC: It’s astonishing how a small change in lifestyle can have such a profound impact on a person’s life.

LB: And the good news is, most women are the ones who make the health choices for their families. So if they make healthy choices for themselves, their families benefit. If they are watching their weight, they’re more likely to serve meals—or pick up meals, which I know a lot of women do now—that are lower in calories, and that’s good for their children, as well.

CC: Have you seen that McDonald’s has gone through a shift from super-sizing to actually having healthy menus?

LB: I haven’t seen it, but I have heard about it. I heard they no longer sell the super-size anymore and that they have added some salads.

CC: Schools also seems to be shifting to a healthier menu for students.

LB: People are paying attention to it, and we should, because there is such a rise in obesity among American children. And part of that also is because children sit in front of the television, or in front of a computer, instead of playing outside [the way] generations did before there was television or computers.

CC: What are you doing to create an awareness specifically of the importance of physical activity, especially among children?

LB: I talk about it a lot, and I talk about it with the Red Dress project, because it’s an important piece of [heart health promotion]. If we do have this rise in obesity among American children, then we know we’ll have a rise in heart disease problems as they grow up—and, really, even as young adults they could have heart disease problems. So it’s all associated, really, with making healthy lifestyle choices.

CC: Are there any other specific causes you’re lending your time and efforts to?

LB: Well, I’ve always worked with education causes; that’s my real interest. And in a few minutes I’m going to go out and introduce the President when he honors…

CC: That’s changed, I’m actually going to do that now.

LB: (laughs)…when he honors the Teachers of the Year. I was at this event last year; it’s a wonderful event to be able to honor teachers. Every student has a favorite teacher. My favorite teacher was my second grade teacher. I loved her so much. I wanted to be just like her, so I became a teacher.

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