Bush, Laura Welch

views updated May 09 2018

Laura Welch Bush

American first lady Laura Welch Bush (born 1946), the wife of United States President George W. Bush, has been one of the most low–key presidential wives in recent years, but supporters praise her for her quiet strength. Bush was reluctant about her husband's foray into national politics, but remained supportive. "Despite the high profile of her position, first lady Laura Bush manages to smoothly navigate around all the shoals that accompany being first lady," wrote CBSNews.com.

Early Life

Laura Welch was born an only child in Midland, Texas, the daughter of Harold and Jenna Welch. Her father was a homebuilder and her mother kept the books for his business. In her speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention, where her husband was nominated for the first time, she called Midland "a place where neighbors had to help each other because any other help was too far away." Bush enjoyed reading as a youth and credited her second–grade teacher, Charlene Gnagy, for inspiring her interest in education.

"Education is the living room of my life," she told the convention. "I first decided to become a teacher when I was in the second grade. Neither of my parents graduated from college, but I knew at an early age they had that high hope and high expectation for me. My Dad bought an education policy, and I remember him telling me, 'Don't worry, your college education will be taken care of.' " Determined to chart a teaching career, she practiced teaching her dolls, lining them up in rows for their day's lessons. "Years later our daughters did the same thing," she said. "We used to joke that the Bush family had the best–educated dolls in America."

Bush was involved in a fatal car accident at age 17. According to Ann Gerhart, author of The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush, she drove past a stop sign and her Chevrolet struck a Corvair and killed a friend, 17–year–old Michael Douglas. "Killing another person was a tragic, shattering error for a girl to make at seventeen," Gerhart wrote in her book, as printed on the CBSNews.com Web site. "It was one of those hinges in a life, a moment when destiny shuddered, then lurched in a new direction. In its aftermath, Laura became compassionate, less inclined to judge another person. . . . What made the crash even more devastating was that the boy Laura killed was no stranger but a good friend of hers, a boy from her crowd." Police did not press charges. Years later, Laura Bush described the incident as one of the most tragic of her lifetime.

Bush earned her bachelor's degree in education in 1968 from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and her master's in library science in 1973 from the University of Texas at Austin. After college, Bush was a public school teacher and librarian in the Houston, Dallas, and Austin school systems in Texas. "When I taught school in Houston and Austin, many of my second, third, and fourth grade students couldn't read," Bush told the Republican convention in 2000, "and frankly I'm not sure I was very good at teaching them. I tried to make it fun by making the characters in children's books members of our class. We saved a Web in the corner for Charlotte."

On November 5, 1977, three months after they met, Bush married George W. Bush. George W. Bush, also from Midland, came from a political family. His father, George H. W. Bush, would become U.S. president from 1989 to 1993 and before that, vice president for eight years under Ronald Reagan. Bush's grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a U.S. Senator from Connecticut and a successful Wall Street investment banker. One year after they were married, George W. Bush ran for Congress, winning the Republican nomination but losing the general election. They generally campaigned around western Texas in his Oldsmobile Cutlass.

Balanced Home Life, Husband's Politics

Laura Bush in 1981 gave birth to twin daughters Barbara and Jenna, named after their grandmothers. "Her 1981 pregnancy with the twins was troubled and dangerous," John Hachette of the Gannett News Service wrote in USA Today. "Toxemia threatened her kidneys, and a Caesarian delivery was performed five weeks before her due date."

She learned to juggle home life with her husband's budding political career. "The quiet, inward librarian from Texas knew what to expect when she married into the loud, opinionated Bush clan," Tamara Lipper and Rebecca Sinderbrand wrote in Newsweek. "George W. got into politics soon after the two met." Laura Bush, though, always drew a sharp line separating family and politics; the children, to her, were not props. "We never wanted to use them," she told the Newsweek writers. "And we never did." She effectively shielded Barbara and Jenna through their adolescence, while their father served two terms as Texas governor and charted his path to the White House. "Everyone deals with it in different ways," Laura Bush said at the 2000 convention. "But I told George I thought running for president was a little extreme." Meanwhile, she prodded her husband into giving up drinking, which he did in 1986 after suffering an overwhelming hangover from celebrating his 40th birthday.

She became the nation's first lady after her husband won the disputed presidential election in 2000. A recount of the Florida vote gave him the 25 electoral votes and with them the election over the Democratic candidate, Vice President Al Gore. George Bush won the electoral vote, 271–266, despite losing the popular balloting by nearly 540,000 votes.

For the first eight months of her husband's presidency, Laura Bush kept a low profile. She kept her ties to Midland, for instance, reuniting with childhood friends for wilderness and swimming trips. She reads cookbooks, but follows through on few recipes. Essentially, she was the anti–Hillary, a counterbalance to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the headstrong previous first lady who has since won a Senate seat from New York and is said to harbor her own presidential ambitions.

Steadied Influence During 9/11

Little did she know how her life would change on September 11, 2001. Two hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center's twin towers in New York, killing about 3,000 people. Another crashed into the Pentagon building across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.; a fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, possibly headed for the White House. That morning, Laura Bush was en route to the U.S. Capitol building in Washington to testify at a Senate education hearing. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts, who chaired the committee, said Bush looked "so alone" as she approached him in the corridor. "As she tried to reach her daughters, mother, and husband, she was struck by the fact that she was watching, with Senator Kennedy, the worst tragedy since his brother John was assassinated," Margaret Carlson wrote in Time magazine. Bush and Kennedy addressed the media, attempting to ease fears. "You take the measure of a person at a time like that," Kennedy said, according to Carlson. "She is steady, assured, elegant."

Later that night, Bush and the president were at home after the Secret Service sequestered them. At one point an agent barged into their room, saying there was an unidentified plane in the air. "I couldn't see a thing without my contacts, so I held onto my husband to go down to the basement," Laura Bush said, as Carlson quoted her. "Before they could get the lumpy foldout couch made up, they identified the plane. I got back to sleep, but I can't say the president did." After 9/11, Laura Bush appeared more frequently on talk shows and on news magazine programs such as CBS TV's 60 Minutes. "These last three years since September 11, have been difficult years in our country's history," she told the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004. "We've learned some lessons we didn't want to know . . . that our country is more vulnerable than we thought, that some people hate us because we stand for liberty, religious freedom, and tolerance. But we have been heartened to discover that we are also braver than we thought, stronger, and more generous."

Presidential Wives Roles Changed

During the 2004 presidential campaign, the media magnified the roles of the candidates' wives. Reporters frequently emphasized the "study in contrasts" story angle, with Laura Bush opposite the outspoken Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Democratic candidate John Kerry. The nastiness of the campaign spared neither spouse. "Kerry and [vice presidential running mate John] Edwards didn't have to marry a frumpy librarian from Midland, Texas, to feel like somebody," the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Garry South, a former senior adviser to California Democratic Governor Gray Davis, after Heinz Kerry drew criticism for her assertiveness. About two weeks before the election, Heinz Kerry had to apologize for questioning whether Laura Bush had ever held a "real job." She said, according to Cable News Network's Web site, CNN.com, "I had forgotten that Mrs. Bush had worked as a schoolteacher and librarian, and there couldn't be a more important job than teaching our children. . . . [I] am sincerely sorry I had not remembered her important work in the past."

Diane Salvatore, editor–in–chief of the Ladies' Home Journal, compared the two wives in an interview with co–host Matt Lauer on NBC News' Today Show, saying: "Laura Bush does not say anything that she hasn't thought through a long time. Teresa Heinz Kerry speaks from the heart. There's no filter between her heart and her mouth." Some of the media coverage of the wives drew criticism as overly shallow. Sheila Gibbons, in Media Report for Women, criticized CNN's experienced political reporter, Judy Woodruff, for pigeonholing political women: "controversial Hillarys," "glamorous Jackies," and "demure Lauras." She added, "In the present strained geopolitical climate, isn't there much more to say about presidential partners? And at the beginning of the 21st century, what are Family Circle [magazine]'s female editors doing orchestrating a bakeoff between candidates' wives, anyway?"

In a campaign in which both parties targeted female voters and the Bush daughters even helped, George Bush won re–election in November of 2004. "It looks like Jenna, Barbara, and Laura beat [Kerry daughters] Alexandra, Vanessa, and Teresa," Lynn Sweet wrote in the Chicago Sun–Times. And, during 2004, the first lady became more outspoken about her favorite issues, including embryonic stem–cell research and the Swift boat veterans controversy involving Kerry's background, attacking these issues with a little more edginess. Among Laura Bush's charitable endeavors are teacher training programs in Afghanistan and educational campaigns to combat breast cancer and heart disease. She also helped start Preserve America, a national preservation initiative. She is the only first lady to conduct a presidential radio address, discussing the problems women and children face under Taliban rule.

The Laura Bush Legacy

Bush's measured calm belies her strength. "She's poised. She's cool. She's smart. And you sense a feistiness just beneath the surface," Republican pollster Whit Ayres said during the 2004 campaign, according to USA Today. She has had to cope with an adolescent tragedy, her politician/husband's drinking, nearly losing her twin daughters during pregnancy and helping calm the nation immediately after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. USA Today's Stone wrote that Bush, "has had a quiet reputation similar to Mamie Eisenhower's. But when it comes to talking policy with her husband and speaking out on issues close to her heart, Bush may be closer to her predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton."


Chicago Sun–Times, November 10, 2004.

Media Report to Women, July 1, 2004.

San Francisco Chronicle, July 25, 2004.

Time, January 7, 2002.


"First Lady Laura Bush," PBS.org,http://www.pbs.org/newshour/vote2004/repconvention/speeches/lbush.html (August 31, 2004).

"Heinz Kerry Apologizes for Remark," CNN.com,http://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/10/20/theresa.apologizes.laura/ (October 21, 2004).

"Interview: Diane Salvatore of Ladies' Home Journal Discusses a New Article about the Presidential Candidates and their Wives," NBC News: Today,http://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/10/20/theresa.apologizes.laura/ (July 6, 2004).

"Laura Bush," PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/election2000/gopconvention/laura–bush.html (July 31, 2000).

"Laura Bush, Biography," White House Web site,http://www.whitehouse.gov/firstlady/flbio.html (November 30, 2004).

"Laura Bush Testifies to Husband's Leadership," USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/news/politicselections/nation/president/2004-08-31-laura-bush–x.htm (August 31, 2004).

"Laura Bush: 'The Perfect Wife,' " CBSNews.com,http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/01/07/earlyshow/leisure/books/main591951.shtml (January 8, 2004).

"Laura Welch Bush: Shy No More," USA Today,http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/e2147.htm (June 23, 2000).

"Mrs. Bush Ran Stop Sign in Fatal Crash,"" USA Today,http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/e1698.htm (May 3, 2000).

"The Reluctant Campaigner: First Lady Laura Bush, Making Her Peace with Politics," Newsweek,http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5853703/site/newsweek (September 6, 2004).

Bush, Laura

views updated May 21 2018

Laura Bush

Born: November 4, 1946
Midland, Texas

American first lady

A former librarian and elementary-school teacher from Texas, Laura Bush's marriage to President George W. Bush moved her into the national spotlight. As first lady, she has continued to support the issues that are important to her, including improving education in the United States.

An only child

Laura Welch Bush was born Laura Welch on November 4, 1946, in Midland, Texas. She was the only child of Harold Welch, a home builder, and Jenna Hawkins Welch, who served as bookkeeper for her husband's business. Her parents encouraged her early love of reading. They attempted several times to have a second child but were not successful; in some cases the siblings survived only for a few days. This situation added to Laura's shyness and eagerness to please. "I felt very obligated to my parents," she told the New York Times. "I didn't want to upset them in any way."

After graduating from high school, Laura Welch went on to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. She earned a bachelor's degree in early education in 1968. She taught in public schools in Texas for a few years before deciding to earn a master's degree in library science from the University of Texas at Austin. She settled in that city after her 1973 graduation and became a librarian for the local public school system.

Marries into a political family

On a visit back to Midland, Laura Welch was introduced to George Walker Bush (1946). At the time, George W. Bush owned an oil business. The couple played miniature golf on their first date and were married just three months later, in November 1977. She agreed to the marriage only with the condition that she would never be asked to make a speech for a political campaign. At the time, George W. Bush's father George H.W. Bush (1924), was planning to make a bid for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination.

Laura Bush quit working when she married but took college literature courses. She and her husband had twin daughters, named Barbara and Jenna in honor of their grandmothers. In time, her husband decided to enter politics, and Laura Bush became the wife of the Texas governor in 1995. In spite of her shyness, the new role forced her to become a more public person. She was finally convinced to make speeches, and over the next few years she developed a greater degree of confidence in her ability to speak in public. As the state's first lady, she took up literacy (the ability to read and write) and breast cancer awareness as her causes, raising nearly one million dollars for the state's public libraries. She is also credited with convincing her husband to give up drinking, which he did after she expressed concern that his habits were becoming harmful to his health and their family life.

Becomes first lady

When her husband decided to become a candidate in the 2000 Republican presidential election, as she told another New York Times reporter, Richard L. Berke, their teenage daughters were not enthusiastic. "They didn't want him to run, because they wanted to be perfectly private teenagers like every teenager," Laura Bush said. She may have also wished for a more private life, but as she said, "I would never say to George, for something that he really wanted to do, that he couldn't do that."

While campaigning for her husband, Laura Bush managed to make a favorable impression while saying little. She delivered the first major speech at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in July 2000. In this speech she discussed her husband's promise to improve early childhood development programs and increase funding for teacher training. She also talked about the home they were building in Texas in which they planned to host the next generation of Bush children. "One day, God willing, George will be a fabulous grandfather. In the meantime, he'll make a great president," she said in conclusion. Bush went on to win one of the closest presidential elections in history, and he took office in January 2001.

Although she planned to keep a fairly low profile during her husband's term, Laura Bush was forced to change her plans after terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. She provided comfort for the country as it mourned the victims and worked to rebuild after the attacks. She became an even greater source of support for her husband as he worked to find and punish those responsible and ensure that such a thing would never happen again.

For More Information

Felix, Antonia. Laura: America's First Lady, First Mother. Avon, MA: Adams Media Corp., 2002.

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