As first lady, Laura Bush has never forgotten her friends from high school and college. So she invited her 1964 graduating class from Robert E. Lee High School in Midland, Texas, to a reunion at the White House.
What made the event unique was that it bridged Midland’s segregationist past.
Besides Lee High, her hometown had two other high schools when she was growing up — Midland High and George Washington Carver High School.
Kids from Midland High and Lee High mixed socially. Laura’s high school boyfriend, Harvey Kennedy, attended Midland High. But Midland was segregated, and Carver was an entirely black school in a black section of town called the Flats.
As described in my book “Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady,” Carver was literally on the other side of the railroad tracks. [Editor's Note: Get Ron Kessler's book. Go here now.]
Most of the streets there were unpaved. Even though Carver was a mile from Midland High and four miles from Lee, no one at Carver, which is now closed, mixed with students from the other schools except when the boys played in summer baseball leagues.
For the 44th reunion on Saturday evening, Laura brought all three schools together for the first time. Six graduates of Carver, which had a much smaller graduating class than the other two schools, attended the event. In all, 500 people, including spouses or guests, paid $150 per person to attend. That reimbursed the White House for the cost of the event and also paid for the band.
Since President Bush also grew up in Midland and attended schools there until the end of seventh grade, the reunion, which both he and Laura hosted, gave him a chance to shmooze with boyhood friends.
The buffet dinner featured Texas fare like chicken fried steaks, guacamole, and mini-hamburgers. Jellyroll, a Philadelphia band that twin daughter Barbara likes, played mainly oldies from the 50s and 60s.
When Laura was attending Lee High, the rock-and-roll craze was in full effect, challenging established balladeers like Perry Como, Frankie Laine, and Bing Crosby. Laura relished the tunes and had a collection of well-worn 45s.
Laura’s tastes ranged from Elvis and the Beatles to the Neville Brothers, Ray Charles, Joan Baez, the Crickets, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, the Big Bopper, Lenny Welch, and Little Willie John. She especially liked Buddy Holly, who was from Lubbock, Texas, and Roy Orbison, who was from Odessa.
A 13-member band, Jellyroll began the evening playing the theme to Dick Clark’s "American Bandstand." The band ended the event by playing Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” as guests waved their arms in unison.
Laura danced to rock ‘n' roll with the husbands of several of her friends, including Jan Donnelly O’Neill. Back in August 1977, O’Neill and her husband Joe introduced Laura to her future husband at a barbecue in their Midland backyard. Jan O’Neill could tell something was brewing when George Bush stayed at the barbecue beyond 9:30 p.m. Normally, he would leave by then to go to bed.
“Laura has always kept close to her friends from every part of her life,” Jan O’Neill, the organizer of the reunion, told me.
“Going to high school, we never could have imagined that we would end up going to the White House for our reunion,” said Judy Dykes Hester, a close friend of Laura in high school. “People were humbled by it and grateful.”
To the dismay of many who think it would improve their image, the Bushes refuse to use such personal events and friendships for political advantage. Thus, the press was never told the details of the reunion and how it bridged a segregated past.
By the same token, when Bush held his 35th Yale University reunion at the White House, friends he invited to stay overnight at the White House included Donald Etra, an orthodox Jew; Lois Betts, a black woman; and Muhammed Saleh, a Muslim born in Jordan.
The Clinton White House would have held a press conference to highlight the diversity of the president’s friends. Reflecting Midland values, Bush never told the press.
Crawford Wedding Plans
Plans are proceeding for about 200 guests to attend Jenna Bush’s wedding in Crawford, Texas, on May 10. The invitation list is limited to family and friends of Jenna and Barbara Bush and groom Henry Hager, as well as close friends of the Bushes who have known Jenna since she was a baby.
The location of the event — first reported along with the month of the wedding by Newsmax last August — fits with Jenna’s personality. While Barbara Bush chose to go to Yale, Jenna went to the University of Texas.
“I think Jenna wanted to go to the University of Texas because she was so connected in Austin, and she wanted to have her friends and not lose them,” says Pamela Nelson, a close friend of the Bushes who gave the twins art lessons for two years. “Barbara was a little more adventurous. She had done a semester in Rome [Italy] in high school. I think she went to Yale for the adventure. Her father and her grandfather went there. I suspect her grades were better, but Jenna made pretty good grades.”
“The daughters are like their parents, complete opposites,” says Anne Johnson, a close friend of the Bushes whose husband, Clay Johnson III, was a high school friend of the president and is deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. “Barbara is just like her mother: quiet, studious, more introverted. I think she looks like President 41,” the term inside the Bush camp for former President George H.W. Bush.
In contrast, says Anne Johnson, “Jenna is gregarious, always on, likes to be the center of attention. Jenna looks like her mother but acts like her father and vice versa with Barbara. Bar [their grandmother] said, ‘If you could integrate them, you would have a very happy person.’”
Africans for President Bush
The $15 billion President Bush has put into fighting AIDS and HIV in Africa has not gone unnoticed. Reviled by Americans on the left as a bigot and a threat to humanity, Bush is loved by Africans largely because his AIDS initiative has resulted in a significant decline in infections and deaths from those public health threats.
According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, 82 percent of people surveyed in the Ivory Coast, 72 percent in Kenya, and 69 percent in Ghana express confidence that Bush does the right thing in world affairs.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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