George W. Bush and Laura Bush
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George W. Bush and Laura Bush

In an exclusive and intimate interview, President and Mrs. Bush open up about the strength of their marriage, their hopes for their daughters, and their faith that the world is on its way to becoming a more peaceful place.

A Different World

Two years ago, President George W. Bush was still a relatively unknown quantity on the national scene. He seemed most defined by what he was not. He was not outsized, blindingly eloquent, possessed of powerful charisma. He had lost the popular vote, and his controversial election had to be settled in court. Even his supporters conceded that he was untested, and as for his foes, they had him pegged as a little man in a big job.

And then came September 11th, 2001.

America was brutally attacked, and even in the first shock it was clear a huge and historic challenge had been forced on the new President.

The American people wondered: Was he up to it? Could he meet it? Was he big enough, tough enough, and would he make us want to follow him?

It is commonly said that President George Bush found his voice amid the rubble, but he also found the purpose of his presidency and of his leadership. He knows now why he is in the White House: to make America safer, to defeat terrorism and gut Al Qaeda, to topple aggressive dictatorships, to win a war.

In the process of laboring to do those things, President Bush did something else. His palpable faith in our country, and his insistence that it could do any good thing it set its mind to, helped ignite a new wave of patriotism. It has become chic to love America again. This President tapped directly into the primal patriotic urge that rose like smoke from September 11th. He reminded us through his leadership that our principles are worth fighting for, and dying for. He rescued the idea of righteous anger as a diplomatic tool, and reminded the world that peace must sometimes be secured with force.

The drama of our recent history has sped up the process by which we have gotten to know our President. September 11th seems to have worn away George Bush's reserve, his early tentativeness and awkwardness. He has let the real Bush come out.

Who Is He?

Photo: White House Photo Office

Who is this man we've gotten to know so well the past two years? He is a hard worker who gives off the air of a man who's found his calling. He is by nature chipper, with a comic's instincts and timing. He is at ease with himself. He is a person for whom work, family, and faith are everything.

He is a loyal son who told us that his relationship with his father has undergone a change. He is a man in love with his wife. He is a father bemused by the strength and independence of his daughters.

And First Lady Laura Bush is a friendly yet firm presence, both modest and soothing. She has laughing eyes, and her voice hits the ear as more Southern than Texan.

The Bushes are easy people to like. All presidents and first ladies are -- being liked is part of their job, and by the time they've reached the White House it's part of their nature. But most presidents fairly quickly develop a kind of screen in front of them, through which you can see them and they can see you. From behind the screen they talk to you, but they also, in some way, detach.

But there is nothing detached about George W. Bush. He doesn't have the screen. There is a profound present-ness to him. The President was seeing us on a day that was bad (Mideast turmoil) and busy, but he spoke to us with a concentration that showed he was, as actors say, in the moment.

The day that Ladies' Home Journal was invited to the White House was a sparkling June day, one of those mornings that comes after a long haul of bad weather (almost six weeks of solid rain) and presents itself as a kind of gift. The sun had come out strong, and the grass was warm and the birds were singing like they'd just rediscovered their voices.

The grass is in the Rose Garden; the birds are in the crab apple trees that ring it. There are boxwoods, tulips, hyacinths, and roses, all reassuringly flowering. This sunny day, the bright whiteness of the house almost makes you squint. In the colonnaded walkway between the Residence and the West Wing, a White House gardener talks about the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden and points out the two magnolia trees President Andrew Jackson planted almost 200 years ago in memory of his wife.

History was with us.

Q&A with the Bushes

Peggy Noonan for Ladies' Home Journal: Are there questions that in every interview you expect to be asked that nobody ever gets around to?

President Bush: Has being in the White House strengthened or weakened your marriage? The answer is strengthened it.

Noonan: That's so funny, because my first question was, Has being in the White House strengthened or weakened your marriage? [all laugh]

President Bush: Suuuure.

Noonan: So it has strengthened it?

President Bush: Yeah, it has. The marriage has never been better. Perhaps it's because of the pressures of the life we live. Perhaps it's because we have been through a lot as people given a lot of responsibility, and the circumstances of the presidency and the First Lady's office changed after September 11th and, therefore, we work closer together or we came together for a common purpose. There's a lot of reasons why. But it has never been better.

Noonan: You know, Jackie Kennedy said of her marriage to John F. Kennedy that the White House years were their best years. She thought it might be something about "living over the store."

Mrs. Bush: There's certainly that, for sure. We see each other every day, we can lunch together, have dinner together if we're both in town.

President Bush: We spend a lot of private time together. We entertain, but just not a lot. The other thing that's interesting about life in our White House is that we love our friends, and we constantly have friends, particularly from Texas, who are visiting, as you have friends come into your house. What a great joy to share our life with people we've known for years and years. And it's exciting to see their excitement.

Mrs. Bush: Tonight, for instance, we have one of the President's close friends from college coming with his wife and four children, and that will be really fun for us to show his kids the White House, have dinner here. And I'm sure they'll make it down to the bowling alley to bowl.

Noonan: So you're keeping it normal, keeping it real?

Mrs. Bush: I think that's right. George already had all the characteristics that everyone sees now, that I think people in America have seen since September 11th, and that is a resolve, and a strength and a discipline that he's had for years. It's been honed over the last two years.

Noonan: Mrs. Bush, when your husband is the leader of the free world, is it still possible for you to get irritated with him and yell at him over stuff --

President Bush: Yes.

Mrs. Bush: [laughs]

Noonan: -- like he didn't put the cover on the salsa jar?

President Bush: Yes, it is.

Mrs. Bush: [laughing] Well, I don't have to yell over those things.

President Bush: I'll answer that, yes. Absolutely. Probably more so.

Mrs. Bush: No, that's not really right.

President Bush: No?

Mrs. Bush: I mean, all the things that I might have fussed at him about before --

President Bush: Is this a candid, truthful interview?

Mrs. Bush: All the things that might have irritated me -- like not hanging up his towels -- I don't have to worry about anymore. Someone in the White House hangs up the towels.

Noonan: So what's left to snap about?

President Bush: She finds plenty of reasons. [teasing] Which is good, it's good. Lotta times people tell the president what he wants to hear. Laura tells me what I need to hear.

A Strong Woman

Photo: White House Photo Office

Noonan: Mr. President, you are drawn, I think, to strong women.

President Bush: Yes, I am.

Noonan: You have a strong mom, a strong wife, Karen Hughes, Condi Rice...Why do you like strong women so much?

President Bush: I like their presence, and I feel comfortable, and I find the advice from those women you named is very sound and solid. They bring a unique perspective to the presidency. Why would you want to marry a weak woman? I was attracted to Laura because of her strength -- her beauty and her strength. And my mother? I didn't have any choice with her.

Noonan: Mrs. Bush, what three words would you use to describe the kind of mother you are to your daughters?

Mrs. Bush: Loving first, of course. And I'd say the same for their father. I'm very amused by my children. I think they're a lot of fun to be with, so I guess I would say that I'm engaged with them, with their personalities --

President Bush: Dedicated.

Mrs. Bush: Yes, dedicated.

President Bush: Truly dedicated.

Noonan: How about you?

President Bush: I love them a lot. I am impatient, and impatient with them, and proud. Proud.

Noonan: How does your impatience show?

President Bush: I wanted them to be normal when they were teenagers, and I wanted them to be working ladies. I've got to slow down. I've got to allow them to become the bright young ladies that they're becoming at their own pace, and not at mine.

Noonan: Who, between Barbara and Jenna, is just like Dad, and who is just like Mom?

Mrs. Bush: Well, they're just like themselves, and very individual. But one of them is a little bit more outgoing, or maybe I might say outrageous. [both Bushes laugh]

President Bush: Which means she's like Laura, of course. [more laughter]

Mrs. Bush: One of them is very organized. She just gets her work done -- she has since she was born. And that's the way I wish I could be. They're both really fun to be with.

President Bush: They're confident, too. Which is important. Not overconfident, but confident in their abilities. Confident in their capacity to take on life's challenges and achieve what they want to achieve. There's an inner confidence that's becoming more and more apparent.

Mrs. Bush: And I do think that has also to do with the way we raised them, always expecting them to do the right thing and expecting them to be accomplished in some way.

Noonan: How are they doing now that they are going into their senior year of college?

President Bush: My biggest concern is that they are happy. Of all the concerns I have, of all the issues of war and peace, and prosperity and freedom -- all the things I work on and think about a lot in this job -- my biggest concern is whether or not those girls are happy. And safe, of course. But they'll be safe. But it's the happiness. My biggest worry is putting them in a position where they would not have a normal childhood and normal college life, and I can report they're happy.

Mrs. Bush: I think, like every parent, if your children are happy, then parents are happy. And if they're unhappy, then there's nothing more difficult for parents.

Noonan: Are they thinking of careers right now?

President Bush: They were talking last night about Teach For America. So they are beginning to realize that they've got to take responsibility for their own lives and beginning to think about their career paths. Laura chose her career path as a librarian early. I didn't choose mine until a little late. And uh, [chuckles] I never really was that worried about the career path.

Noonan: Advice on love? The girls are 21, meeting guys...

Mrs. Bush: We're not giving them advice, they're telling us. [laughs] And they both say they want to wait before they get married. They want to have some time as young women to work and find their way in life.

Noonan: So if Jenna comes home and says, Mom, I met this fellow, and she describes him and he sounds exactly like young George Bush, you'd say, Go for it?

Mrs. Bush: That's right! That is exactly my advice: Just wait till you find somebody like your daddy.

Noonan: Mr. President, do you like that?

President Bush: That's a pretty low standard. [big laugh from Mrs. Bush]

The Clan Stays in Touch

Noonan: A lot of grown women say that they talk to their mothers every day. Do you talk to your mom every day?

President Bush: No.

Noonan: What's your relationship like?

President Bush: With my mother? Oh, it's candid. She is a...a very interesting lady and a lot of fun to talk to, but I don't talk to her a lot. Actually, I talked to 'em today.

Noonan: You talked to your dad?

President Bush: Uh-huh. I checked in with him. Let's see, I got in to the Oval Office at about 6:40 this morning and got through some paperwork and decided to give them a call, just to see how they were doing. We're going to see my dad for his birthday, June 12th. I'm sure he read the newspapers and was all steamed up about something, and I told him not to worry about it. I didn't read the newspapers and was not steamed up and it was important for him to hear that I'm doing fine.

Noonan: Do you wind up having to comfort him when he feels this way?

President Bush: Yeah, I do. It's amazing, the roles have been reversed. When he was the president, I would agonize when I would hear things said about him that I knew weren't true, and I hurt for him when the traditional slings and arrows of politics were fired at him. And now the roles are reversed. And the truth of the matter is it doesn't bother me one whit what they say. And I don't pay attention to it. I've got a job to do. I frankly know more about what is going on on a lot of the subjects than a lot of the pundits, and I'm confident in our team, and I'm confident in this administration. And, therefore, I end up spending time with my dad telling him not to worry, that I am doing great. We feel wonderful. Laura's terrific. I'm happy. So, it is a role reversal.

Mrs. Bush: I think it's still just exactly what we were talking about earlier. We want our girls to be happy and I think he feels the same way.

President Bush: When people come to the White House, particularly the youngsters, I say to them, You want some advice? Listen to your mother. I'm still listening to mine.

Noonan: Mr. President, the day you were sworn in, as you took the oath of office, I thought I saw your eyes fill with tears.

President Bush: Uh, yeesh, I could have. I'm an emotional person. It also could have been that it was really cold out there. [all laugh]

Mrs. Bush: It's a very moving time, there's no doubt about that.

Noonan: Yes, and man, you looked moved.

President Bush: Yeah, I was moved. But I don't remember tearing up. I could have, conceivably. It is moving. It's a profound moment, obviously. I looked at Laura, and the girls...[He stares off into the middle distance, eyes narrowed slightly, obviously lost in a private emotion or memory; his features soften, and he looks proud and awed and humbled.]

Noonan: You're getting that look again!

President Bush: Yeah, I know! [all laugh]

Foreseeing the Future

Noonan: Mr. President, as you went into this presidency, did you have a hunch that you were going to face the big bad history?

President Bush: It's very interesting that you ask that. I remember talking to Dick Cheney and saying, "I need a vice president who will be a good, solid adviser when things go bad." Not if things go bad. As I recall, I said when things go bad. When things are fine, you walk along. But I need somebody who has been through a lot and will be a steady source of advice. And whether or not I had a premonition, I don't know. But, nevertheless, I did put the vice presidency in those terms. I fully felt that Dick Cheney would be the perfect person to do that, and history has proven me correct.

Noonan: Mrs. Bush, as you look back on the second anniversary of 9/11, has the way you think about that day changed?

Mrs. Bush: In a lot of ways the whole experience of it has deepened and become more horrific and more terrifying. Because at the time it was so unbelievably shocking, but now we've met so many people who lost somebody that day. I have on my mirror upstairs one little card that was handed to me last year when we were at Ground Zero, by one parent of a beautiful, smiling young woman. One of the most moving parts of a year ago was how people really wanted you to know something specific about their loved ones -- that they were funny or they were great parents or wonderful children. We kept all of the pictures people gave us to become part of the archives of the United States. But I kept that one on my mirror. In a lot of ways I think she represents everybody. And I see her there every day.

Noonan: Mr. President, and you?

President Bush: Like Laura says, you really don't realize the personal tragedy, the stories behind the deaths, until the history unfolds. And so September 11th has taken on a depth of sadness and raw emotion even more so than at the time. What hasn't changed, however, is the declaration of war by people who hate what we stand for. I made up my mind that I would lead this nation to win the war on terror and that war still goes on. What hasn't changed is that feeling I had on the day of the attack: America is under attack and they will pay. I still feel the same way.

Noonan: How have you done as a war leader of the United States of America in the 21st century?

President Bush: Well, I wish you'd described it as how have I been as a peacemaker. I'm reluctant to use our military, but when we do, it's to make the world a more peaceful place. And I believe the world is a more peaceful place. Still got a lot of work to do, places where we actually committed our troops to make sure those countries are stable and free. Tell you what we did: We changed the nature of war, which in itself made the world a more peaceful place. The capacity for the United States to fight and win war makes the world more peaceful. Now the guilty can no longer hide behind the innocent. The whole notion of warfare where you had to bomb and destroy innocent life in order to be victorious changed in the year 2003 because of the might and strength and strategic planning and the technologies of the United States and its allies, but primarily the United States. So we can target the guilty and not the innocent. And, therefore, the guilty must fear, must fear, which makes it more likely that we'll win the war on terror and more likely that the world will be peaceful. Hopefully, we'll never have to use our military again.

Noonan: Mrs. Bush, when you married George Bush, did you have the sense that maybe you were marrying a great man?

Mrs. Bush: Well, I didn't think I was marrying someone who was going to become president of the United States. But I thought I'd picked a great man.

Noonan: Have you seen your husband grow since September 11th?

Mrs. Bush: Sure. In a lot of ways we've grown up together, not just since September 11th, but since we married. But there's a certain seriousness in September 11th. When somebody you love takes this job, you always know there's a risk you're going to face really difficult times, and of course, we couldn't have predicted what we had to face, but you know that's a possibility.

Noonan: You were separated on September 11th. What was it like when you saw each other again?

Mrs. Bush: Well, we just hugged. I think there was a certain amount of security in being with each other than being apart.

President Bush: But the day ended on a relatively humorous note. The agents said, "You'll be sleeping downstairs. Washington's still a dangerous place." And I said no, I can't sleep down there, the bed didn't look comfortable. I was really tired, Laura was tired, we like our own bed. We like our own routine. You know, kind of a nester. Like the way things are. I knew I had to deal with the issue the next day and provide strength and comfort to the country, and so I needed rest in order to be mentally prepared. So I told the agent we're going upstairs, and he reluctantly said okay. Laura wears contacts, and she was sound asleep. Barney was there. And the agent comes running up and says, "We're under attack. We need you downstairs," and so there we go. I'm in my running shorts and my T-shirt, and I'm barefooted. Got the dog in one hand, Laura had a cat, I'm holding Laura --

Mrs. Bush: I don't have my contacts in, and I'm in my fuzzy house slippers --

President Bush: And this guy's out of breath, and we're heading straight down to the basement because there's an incoming unidentified airplane, which is coming toward the White House. Then the guy says it's a friendly airplane. And we hustle all the way back upstairs and go to bed.

Mrs. Bush: [laughs] And we just lay there thinking about the way we must have looked.

Noonan: So the day starts in tragedy and ends in Marx Brothers.

President Bush: That's right -- we got a laugh out of it.

A Man of Faith

Noonan: You are famous as a man of deep belief. Can a man who does not believe in God be president?

President Bush: Yes. There will be people as president who do not believe in God. And there probably have been in the past. From my perspective, however, I know that belief in God and prayer, and prayers of people on our behalf, makes a huge difference. Just living this life -- when you realize that there is an Almighty God on whom you can rely -- it provides a great comfort. That's why I read every morning, the Bible and scriptures and Charles Stanley devotionals. It matters a lot to me personally.

Noonan: What do you say to those who are not especially religious, some of whom are very put off by your religious faith? What do you say so they won't be put off or frightened?

President Bush: You shouldn't fear a religious person. The Bible talks about love and compassion and to whom much has been given, much is required. That's really a lot behind my passion on AIDS policy, for example. As the President, I believe in a pluralistic society. I believe people can choose whatever religion they choose. It's not my job -- nor the government's -- to dictate religion. On the other hand, I would hope it would give people great comfort to know there's a religious person holding the office.

Noonan: Are you running for reelection?

President Bush: Well, I've asked Dick Cheney to join me, and I've formed a committee -- that's all a pretty good sign that things are moving toward an '04 campaign. Which is, unbelievably, right around the corner. I've got a lot on my plate and a lot on the agenda. Politics will happen, but this time, politics is frankly in second place relative to what we're trying to get done with Congress or what we're doing with foreign policy or the Middle East peace process or making sure Iraq is free or worrying about Afghanistan or dealing with the North Korea nuclear issue or making sure relations with Europe are sound. People say you've got to think about politics, but my primary objective is doing my job on behalf of the American people.

Noonan: Any final, personal message for the 13 million readers of Ladies' Home Journal?

Mrs. Bush: My message is that I hope we won't go back to our old ways before September 11th, but instead will keep doing the things that September 11th taught us: saying we love you to the people we love and making time for family and for children...spending our lives doing things that we think are really productive and constructive for ourselves and for our country.

President Bush: Well, my message to the 13 million ladies who read this magazine is that we live in the greatest country on the face of the earth. We are great because we're strong, and we're great because we are compassionate. Regardless of political party, regardless of philosophy, I hope all the readers are proud of the United States of America and what we stand for. The values we stand for are so wholesome and so necessary in so many parts of the world. I'm incredibly proud of this country.