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The First Couple, President George W. Bush, 57, and Mrs. Laura Bush, also 57, met with Ladies' Home Journal on April 8, 2004, the Thursday before Easter and the day that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was testifying in front of the 9-11 Commission. They were relaxed; being on home turf at the Bushes' Prairie Chapel Ranch and its 1,600 acres in Crawford, Texas, seems likely part of the reason. The rooms we saw at the ranch are serene and sophisticated: In a sitting room, there are moss-green fabric couches and sisal rugs over cool, cement floors; on the gray walls, framed line drawings of Spanish and Mexican horsemen throughout history.
Diane Salvatore for Ladies' Home Journal: Are there Easter traditions that happen here that you might share with us?
Mrs. Bush: A family get-together. President Bush, number 41, Barbara Bush, and the girls will be here. My mother's already here. And of course we go to church at one of the big military bases [Fort Hood], where there are a large number of men and women who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Salvatore: This looks like quite the setting for an Easter-egg hunt.
Mrs. Bush: We won't be doing it today. Our girls have outgrown it.
Salvatore: Speaking of the girls, do you fantasize about the time when there'll be little grandchildren running around the ranch?
President Bush: Yes, ma'am.
Mrs. Bush: This big tree out here looks perfect for a picnic with grandchildren underneath it.
Salvatore: Could you update us on the girls' plans?
Mrs. Bush: We're very proud of them. They've had very distinguished college careers. [Jenna and Barbara Bush, both 22, graduated in May.] They are going to wait to get jobs till after the election, but Jenna's still very interested in teaching. And we'll see what Barbara's going to do. She has a lot of interests.
Salvatore: Among them?
Mrs. Bush: She's maybe interested in doing AIDS work, with an AIDS foundation; she doesn't know which one.
Salvatore: This is probably your last campaign together, and I wonder if that makes it a particularly poignant moment for both of you.
President Bush: That's an interesting question. I think it will be. Be somewhat nostalgic. The truth of the matter is we spent our first year of marriage on the campaign trail. And this is the last campaign.
Salvatore: Do you think you'll do things differently on this campaign?
President Bush: I think it's important for Laura to be out there without me because she is such a strong advocate for what we're trying to do, and if we're both together it's not a good utilization of her time. So I hope she spends more time on the campaign trail alone.
Mrs. Bush: Although at the end, I love to travel with the president because it is a really sweet time for both of us. Like the president says, we spent the first year of our married life in the car by ourselves driving up and down the panhandle of west Texas. It's a great way to get to know your new husband.
Salvatore: Who's the better driver? [They point to each other simultaneously and laugh.]
President Bush: She is.
Mrs. Bush: He is.
Salvatore: Mrs. Bush, as you campaign, what is the most important thing you want the American people to know about your husband?
Mrs. Bush: Well, of course I know him in a way that nobody else does, and I want people to have the chance to know him like I know him. I know his characteristics in such a profound way. I know how disciplined he is. I know how steady he is. I know how strong he is. And this job is not for the faint of heart, there's no doubt about that. Really requires a lot of strength, especially in the challenging times like we have.
Mrs. Bush: But also, politics is a family business. If somebody in the family is in elected office, then everyone is involved in some way.
Salvatore: Mr. President, what do you know now about being president that you didn't know before, that you would like to tell your younger self?
President Bush: I didn't know a war was coming. I knew it was going to be a lot of work and a tough job. And I accept that and enjoy that. I enjoy making decisions, and I knew it was gonna be a decision-making experience. I didn't realize Washington was going to be so bitter. Austin [where the Bushes lived when he was governor of Texas] was not a bitter place. It was a place where Democrats and Republicans could get along pretty well and look after the state's interests. Washington turns out to be a lot different town than I envisioned it to be. I think it's a lot of zero-sum politics there. I'm not pointing the finger at anybody, I'm just telling you what it is. But one thing's for certain: When I look back at it, I'm glad I ran, and it's been a fantastic experience for both of us. It's been an opportunity to spread freedom and peace, an opportunity to put policies in place that will leave behind the likelihood that people are going to be prosperous, and that's really important. I've enjoyed it. I really have.
Salvatore: Do you think presidents ought to be able to hold office for as long as they could be elected?
President Bush: No.
Salvatore: So you would not be interested in running for a third term if you could?
President Bush: Not at all. I think two terms is plenty. I think in a democracy it's important that there be change and turnover. I think there are plenty of people with capable ideas. There's something refreshing about change in leadership. And there's something also very refreshing about knowing that change in leadership will come after having spent a lot of time trying to convince voters that you're the right person.
Salvatore: Mrs. Bush, where do you feel you've taken the role of First Lady in the first four years and where do you want to take it in the next four if you are, in fact, in the White House again? What would you like your legacy to be about?
Mrs. Bush: About education. That's my lifelong interest. I made a decision to be a teacher when I was in the second grade. I like children. I like to be around children. And I want the very best for American children. I also think that education is the single most important factor in making sure our world is free, that our country is prosperous, and that our people can live satisfying lives. And so that's what I would hope people would remember me for -- my interest in the idea of lifelong learning, not just for children, but for everyone.
President Bush: I also think she'll be remembered because during the attacks on our country, Laura was such a calm and reassuring voice to people. She encouraged people to talk to their children during this very traumatic time. I also know the effect she's had on women in places like Afghanistan, and my hope would be in the second term that the situation would be such that Laura could go to Afghanistan and speak to the millions of women who know that she cares about their freedom and rise above some traditions that kept them essentially enslaved to a backward philosophy. She one time did the presidential address by radio, speaking to Afghan women, and the response was really powerful. I can't tell you the number of people who've gone to Afghanistan, not the least among them Karen Hughes [Counselor to the President], and they say that people are really anxious for Laura to go because she represents such a strong symbol of the best of America.
Salvatore: Some questions about the character of the American people for both of you. What one feature do you find the most distressing about American culture today, and the most noble?
Mrs. Bush: Well, the most noble is how generous, how decent, Americans are. I met with a group of Afghan teachers who lived in Nebraska. The University of Nebraska has a big Middle Eastern department, so they had Afghan women come to train to be teachers so that they could go back home to Afghanistan and train teachers there. They lived with families in Nebraska, and you know what those families are like -- such solid American values in the heartland of our country. And those Afghan women were very surprised at how generous and how kind and how solid these families were.
President Bush: I'd say the most disappointing thing about Americans is that we don't exercise enough, that a lot of disease could be prevented from just walking 20 minutes a day.
Salvatore: There's always a lot of discussion about the characteristics of the baby-boomer generation. When you both think about the generation that your daughters belong to, what contribution do you think they will ultimately make to the American fabric?
Mrs. Bush: I know that they're very idealistic. I know that they want to do good things for their country and for their neighbors. I hear from young women and young men who are about to graduate college that all of them want to make a good impact on their country and the world and they want to help in whatever way they can. They are not particularly materialistic, maybe because they grew up with a lot of affluence themselves. One good example is the huge number of young people who apply to Teach for America, so many that they have to turn down a huge number of very qualified young people who want to teach in inner cities or underserved schools.
Salvatore: You may know that Ladies' Home Journal is the magazine of the "This Marriage Be Saved?" column. Do you recognize that title?
Mrs. Bush: Sure! Of course, he probably doesn't.
Salvatore: It's a 51-year-old column. And we profile only marriages that have been saved --
President Bush: Really?
Salvatore: -- because that's what people learn from.
President Bush: Sure.
Salvatore: But it also seems clear that the 50-percent divorce rate is pretty much here to stay. I'm wondering if you could both address what you think is driving that?
President Bush: The first thing I thought of when you said, "Can a marriage be saved?" is, you know, all marriages require work. I mean, marriages need to be saved nearly every day. Seriously! I mean, it is an accommodation. It is a determination to make a sacrifice for something that is enduring. It's work. I haven't seen studies about why there's divorce, but it's got to be to a certain extent that some people just aren't willing to make the commitment to make it work. A perfect marriage is a marriage that is perfect after years of working together to make it perfect.
Mrs. Bush: People who have parents who were married for 50 years and longer had really great examples of what it's like to work on your marriage, and that's a huge advantage for children. And I think once we have children, it's good to remember that our children are always watching us.
Salvatore: You mentioned Karen Hughes before. In her new book [Ten Minutes from Normal], she shines a light on the struggle that women face when they want to work and want to raise a family. What advice do you both give to your own daughters as you think about this question?
President Bush: My advice is get married first!
Mrs. Bush: I've felt like I was very fortunate to be able to do what Karen did, which is that I could stay home with my children and be able to be available to participate in all their activities. Not that he didn't also participate in their activities -- he did. He actually drove the carpool up until the time he was elected governor. But I also understand and appreciate Karen's dilemma, going from working in the White House to moving back to Austin because she wanted her son to be happy.
President Bush: I guess the way I approach it is, I would tell our daughters that having a child is the most important thing you're going to do. And it's your responsibility to love that child with all your heart. Therefore, use your best judgment as to how to achieve that most primary objective. And there are plenty of women who are able to do just that -- love their child with all their heart and at the same time have a career. There are some like Karen who thought they could do that and came to a point in their life and realized they couldn't, and were strong enough to go to the President of the United States and say, "I gotta go home." She was one of the most powerful women in the history of the country. Access to the president is power. And she had unlimited access. Not only did she have access -- she had my ear. And as Laura will tell you, I do a lot of things she thinks I ought to do, and sometimes I don't. Well, same with Karen Hughes. My advice to people is understand the importance of having a child, make those children a priority, and then adjust your life according to that.
Salvatore: Bigger and bigger proportions of our population are getting older and older. My readers are often the ones who do a lot of the caretaking. What score would you give us as a society for how well we have responded to handling the caretaking of older Americans?
President Bush: America has done a good job by making a commitment to Medicare for seniors. It's a commitment that Lyndon Johnson first started and has been maintained since then, and America deserves a good grade for that. And I will argue that the modernization program I signed is going to make Medicare even better. The quality of nursing homes obviously varies from location to location, but where you find elderly people in lousy nursing homes, there needs to be an F. Something needs to be done about it. That is primarily a state responsibility. And there are some decrepit conditions where our seniors are kept, and that needs to be changed, and people need to be held to account for that. I think one of the interesting qualifiers about how seniors are treated is whether children assume a certain responsibility for their parents. I can tell you that in Laura's family, the care is an A plus, because she cares a lot about her mom, she's constantly checking on her mom. I suspect most people are really caring for their parents. Therefore, my answer would be I would give the society as a whole pretty darn good marks.
Salvatore: There seem to be a lot of indications that America is having a kind of spiritual reawakening. In your view, is there a kind of divine destiny for each of us individually and for America as a country?
President Bush: My view of religion is that we've been given free will, and it's a gift -- like freedom is a gift -- and with that freedom and free will each individual makes a choice as to whether or not there's a commitment to the Almighty. I do think people are a bit more religious in America, and I'm talking about Jewish people, Christians, and Muslims alike. I do think the attacks on September 11th caused America to take a step back and really examine our views of other religions, which I hope is positive. One of the ideas I've tried to reject is that this is a war between Christians and Muslims, and it's not. It's a war between good people and evil people. Fortunately, there are a lot more good people than evil. That's why ultimately we will win.
Salvatore: Do you believe, Mr. President, that some people are irredeemably evil, such as Osama bin Laden?
President Bush: I absolutely believe that people can go from evil to good. There are people who recognize the influence of evil in their lives and choose to do something about it. I think it's too late for Osama bin Laden. As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing redeemable about him. He cannot redeem himself, as far as I'm concerned. I think this guy's soul is so corroded, there's just no way.
Salvatore: Mr. President, you have spent a good amount of time with the troops. Is there one American soldier's story that has stayed with you?
President Bush: I've spent a lot of time with troops, and I've spent a lot of time with families of those who have been killed in battle, been wounded in battle. I guess the most meaningful meeting I've had would be the time when we swore in a Marine, a Mexican citizen, to be a U.S. citizen as I gave the Purple Heart. It was really a powerful moment. He was weeping. His family was weeping. I'm going to do something next week that's interesting. I saw a kid lying in bed after he had gotten his leg blown off because of a mine [in Afghanistan], and I told him, he's gonna get out of bed and he's going to run with the president. I said, "You mark my words, one of these days, you and I are gonna run together." The question is, can I run? [On April 14, the president jogged on the South Lawn of the White House with Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Michael McNaughton, 33.] I will tell you that the families that I've met are very brave and courageous people. One message I get is: Do not allow my loved one to die in vain. In other words, don't let politics get in the way of completing the mission. It's an uplifting, difficult experience, but I come away a stronger person for having met with the families.
Salvatore: Mr. President, we have all experienced the upgrade in security at airports -- now there's more discussion about rail safety. In New York City, some 5 million trips are taken on the rails and subways every day. What are your thoughts about whether it is possible to really secure rails?
President Bush: Well, first of all, we'll never secure America 100 percent anywhere. We are a free country, we are a big country, we are a relatively open country, and if somebody wants to blow somebody up, it'll be hard to stop. Look at the Oklahoma City bombing. Now having said that, we're much more aware. For example, whenever we get any indication that somebody might try to do something on the subway, like they did in Madrid, we alert the subway people in New York. New York's got a good response system -- they're looking for strange packages, they're looking to put more people on the platforms, and the ability to communicate is much quicker than it's ever been, and much more seamless.
Mrs. Bush: I think the other good news is that the population is more vigilant. If there's something strange, people know to call authorities. When before we just all went about our own way, now people really are paying attention.
President Bush: We're doing everything we can to secure the homeland. If I had known this was going to happen on 9/11, I promise you we would have used all our assets to prevent it from happening. If we find out somebody is trying to attack somewhere in the United States, we will move. In the meantime, when we get threats that we think indicate that something is about to happen, we put everybody on alert now. I describe the situation we're in as like a war, a different kind of war, and we must use all our resources and assets and allies and friends to bring these people to justice. And we're getting good cooperation. There is a long-term strategy to deal with it, which is to promote freedom. Free societies where people have hope, people have good education, people have healthcare, people have got a chance to realize their dreams, are societies that are less likely to produce bitterness, anger, resentment, suiciders, and killers. This is a vital struggle. It is a defining struggle of this century.
Read the complete interview in the August 2004 issue of Ladies' Home Journal, on newsstands now.