- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2005

When Laura Bush became first lady four years ago she didn’t know just how powerful her position in the White House would be.

“It took me a while to really realize what podium I had, as Lady Bird Johnson says,” Mrs. Bush said, recalling the reaction from women nationwide after she made her first radio address about the women of Afghanistan. “And, I think, you know, you kind of hear and certainly you watch your whole life — I certainly had a very close view of the role of the women in the White House, but it really takes a while to actually realize what a forum I have. It took me a while to realize it.”

As for her role over the next four years, she suggested that America may see a more social and outgoing first lady.

“I have a much deeper understanding of our country. The many, many advantages that Americans have because of our freedoms. … I have a better understanding of the families that live here, much more empathy, really, for the families that have lived here before us because of the challenges we faced.

“But I also have a sense of this country, the big ship America, that might veer a little bit one way or the other way but it is very stable,” she said.

She expects to do “a lot of entertaining. … I think we’ll take advantage of the next four years.” And she finally seems comfortable with her surroundings on Pennsylvania Avenue, despite reports that she is not a fan of Washington.

“Everyone here wants the president to be able to have a normal life. And we’ve done things on purpose, like having pets, and have animals here that make it seem like a home.”

Making final preparations for her husband’s second inauguration, Mrs. Bush spoke for 40 minutes to a handful of reporters in the White House Map Room on topics as diverse as the war, the press, her agenda for the next four years, her two daughters, plans for the Bush presidential library in Texas and her biggest mistake, so far, as first lady — not keeping a diary.

“A huge mistake,” she said, seated on a crimson silk sofa. Asked if she intends to write a book, Mrs. Bush said she didn’t know, but didn’t make any promises.

“Maybe Barney and Beazley will write the first ones,” she joked referring to the Bushes’ pet Scotties. “But that’s what I said last term, and they didn’t ever get around to it.”

Wearing a charcoal gray and white pinstriped suit over a lilac sweater, the first lady was at times spunky and serious, her blue eyes tearing up a bit when she spoke about being married to a wartime president.

“I’m very aware of that all the time — not so much my role in it, but the fact that our country is at war and that military families are bearing a huge burden of worry in that our soldiers are in harm’s way. [It] is literally a constant part of every one of our days and what we think about,” she said.

Having visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center to see wounded soldiers, as well as several bases in the country, Iraq “is certainly the biggest worry” at the end of the day. The decision to go to war, she said, was heartbreaking for the Bushes. “The consequences of that decision we are always aware of.”

She spoke of her desire to visit Afghanistan. “I think American women are interested in, really want the women in the Middle East to succeed. … I hope I’ll be able to go.”

Mrs. Bush added that she has been working to build a teacher-training institute in Kabul, Afghanistan, “where women can come in from the provinces and have a safe place to stay … to be trained, so they can go back and train other teachers.”

On the home front, Mrs. Bush is concerned about juvenile drug abuse and the unhealthy eating habits of Americans, revealing that her husband has gained weight lately because he hasn’t been able to run as much as he used to.

“Although, he is riding the bike and getting really a lot of exercise. He also lifts weights a lot,” she disclosed.

She defended the administration’s record-breaking $40 million price tag for inaugural festivities, saying: “They’re a very, very important part of our history. … They’re a ceremony of our history. They’re a ritual of our government. And I think it’s really important to have the inauguration every time.”

As for the press coverage of the president, she said there are perceptions rampant that aren’t true.

“I think there’s sort of a myth about how George is that’s absolutely wrong,” she said, running one hand through her chin-length chestnut hair. “I don’t like that. You hate it that they’re out there, but you know they’re not right.”

Asked if she considered last fall that Mr. Bush would lose the election, she said the thought had crossed her mind.

“In my mind, I certainly investigated the possibility” that the Bushes would not be returning to the White House. Which drew a round of laughter. “You can’t help but think about that. In very practical ways, I mean you think about what the upstairs looks like. What a move would look like. … Certain mundane ways about it.”

The Bush twins, Jenna and Barbara, are still living at the White House. Mrs. Bush said the campaign trail had been an important training ground for the girls.

“Most 23-year-olds couldn’t introduce their dad in front of a huge crowd like they did. I think they got a lot of poise and they got a lot of confidence from this opportunity … it’s something we’ll always remember.”

Mrs. Bush said plans for her husband’s presidential library would start shaping up in the spring. The only thing definite is that it will be in Texas.

“We’ve talked about it a lot. We discuss all the different possibilities. Very, very preliminary.”

As for next week’s inaugural, Mrs. Bush seemed excited.

“I hope both of us will be able to pay more attention. It was such a whirlwind. We were not observing it, do you know what I mean? We were just in the midst of it last time. I hope we have a little bit of a chance to stand back and observe it and be able to remember it.”

She seemed wistful about the coming years, and her plans when the second Bush administration ends. It’s likely the couple will return to their ranch to write their memoirs. Possibly a second home in Dallas, where the couple lived before Mr. Bush became governor.

“When we leave, I know we’ll go back to Texas,” she said smiling.

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