Elizabeth Lavin


How Laura Bush (and Her Closet) Made History

We talk to the former First Lady about the Rangers' pitching troubles and her love for Where the Wild Things Are.

You’ve never been much of a clotheshorse, but what you wore in the White House became part of history. Do you still have everything? Yes. I have a lot of it and it’s here in the Bush Center archives, my wardrobe. People are fascinated with the costumes, with the clothes of the first ladies, and I understand that. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t substantive issues that every first lady works on as well. Abigail Adams said, “Don’t forget the ladies,” when they were writing the Constitution, which I think is interesting.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center currently has an exhibit on first ladies. I guess the clothes are the sugar coating. Yes, we have Barbara Bush’s suit that she wore on the cover of her book, Millie’s Book, that Millie, her dog, dictated to her. Then we borrowed a dress of Eleanor Roosevelt’s, because we know people are interested in that, but we also wanted to be able to show that being first lady is a lot more than costumes. Eleanor Roosevelt traveled for her husband. She was his eyes and ears, because, of course, he was in a wheelchair, which many Americans didn’t know. They were really able to keep it sort of a secret at the time, that he was crippled with polio.

There are also gifts from dignitaries around the world given to you and the president on permanent display at the Bush Center. What gifts did you give? One of the things was by Roosevelt Wilkerson. He was a homeless man in Dallas who made walking sticks that he carved the Ten Commandments in. And so we gave one of those walking sticks to the Pope when we visited.

Which is the harder unpaid job: first lady or mother? Well, there’s of course so many rewards of being a mother, watching your children grow up. Right now I have my two granddaughters here; Mila and Poppy Louise are at the house right now. George and I are babysitting for the week.

That’s fun. Where do you like to take them in Dallas? I’ve taken ’em already to the Arboretum, which is so beautiful. A sorority sister of mine, Mary Brinegar, she’s the one who’s built that Arboretum to be what it is now, considered one of the most beautiful gardens in the world.

What are some of your other favorite places in town? Here, on our own lawn. I like to show people around. We’ve never had to use city water to irrigate. We collect all the rainwater and all the runoff from the parking lot and everywhere around the building, and it seeps through a limestone swale and it goes into a cistern that we use to irrigate. So I’m proud of our native landscape. But it looks native. I mean, it’s wilder-looking than any sort of traditional landscaping, I guess, in the U.S.

The Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries has been helping school libraries rebuild after natural disasters, including Hurricane Harvey. What was your favorite children’s book when your girls were little? Where the Wild Things Are, of course, where they roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth and roll their terrible eyes. I love that book. The one that I have on my bedside table that I read Poppy and Mila yesterday was the old 1941 Curious George.

You recently went to see Three Sisters at Undermain Theatre. My husband was in that show. He played Masha’s husband, the one with the mustache. Would you like to offer a review of his performance? He was? [laughs] Tell him he was really outstanding in his role. That was fun. I really like theater a lot. And we’re lucky in Dallas with so many options.

You’re also a big baseball fan. With the season gearing up, are you worried about the Rangers’ pitching situation? Of course. Aren’t we always worried about pitching?

First Ladies: Style of Influence” runs through October 1.