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Behind the Scenes With Laura Bush

By    |   Tuesday, 07 October 2008 08:33 AM

When Laura Bush entered the White House on Jan. 20, 2001, everyone wanted to know what kind of first lady she would be. Would she be like Mamie Eisenhower? Would she follow in Barbara Bush’s footsteps? Would she be another Hillary Clinton?

“I think I’ll just be Laura Bush,” she would say.

Few people have as much insight into what that means as Anita McBride, who has been her chief of staff since January 2005. Just after the 2004 election, Laura Bush’s first chief of staff Andi Ball called McBride to say she was planning to move back to Texas. Ball said Mrs. Bush wanted to interview McBride as Ball's successor.

McBride, whose trademark is the colorful silk scarves she usually wears, knew the White House as well as anyone. Going back to 1984, she had worked for Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. A week after Ball’s phone call, the first lady met with McBride at the White House.

“She was very clear and very direct about what she wanted the second term to look like,” McBride tells me in the first interview she has given about her time as chief of staff. “She had definite ideas and laid out several principles that she wanted to guide her and eventually guide her staff.”

The first idea was that she wanted to go to Afghanistan to call attention to the plight of women there and the way the American liberation had improved their lives. According to stereotypes perpetrated by the left, Laura Bush is a pre-feminist figure who has no influence within the Bush administration.

In fact, as former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card told me for my book "Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady," if Mrs. Bush feels that the staff is offering counsel that is “inconsistent with what she sees in the president’s heart, she is not bashful about telling us.”

First Lady Influence

When presidential appointments are under consideration for agencies in which she has an interest, Bush often asks her opinion. “He will say, ‘Why don’t you check with Laura and see if she has any ideas?’ Or he’ll say, ‘Did you run that by Laura? What’s Laura’s reaction?’” Card says.

Mrs. Bush also influences budget requests.

“If it’s a particular interest of the first lady, we will pay attention to the funding for those programs, and they will always prevail,” says Clay Johnson, Bush’s friend from high school who was his Yale roommate and became deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. But Laura’s influence extends beyond budgets, Johnson says.

The administration routinely asks for her opinion or suggestions on appointments and on issues affecting agencies that deal with subjects of interest to her, such as education, the arts, women’s rights, juveniles with social problems, AIDS, libraries, and the humanities.

George Bush bounces off policy questions on Laura.

“I don’t believe he sits down with her and says, ‘I have six policy items I want to go over with you,’” Johnson says. “Rather, issues come up in informal conversation. She is very smart and very wise and can give him an objective, big-picture perspective that after an hour or so with the policy people, he may have lost. As an example, the president will talk to her about civil service reform issues. She will say, ‘Do you really want to do that, or do you really want to make a change in leadership at a time like this?’”

According to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, it was Laura’s “initiative and her idea to really fully and completely expose what the Taliban regime was doing to women, emphasizing violations of women’s rights prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.”

While that may seem an obvious point to make, at the time it was not.

“It turned out to be hugely important for us in terms of broadening the base of support for the war, in terms of really vivifying for people what this regime was like,” Rice told me.

Laura Bush is so modest, she does not watch her own interviews on television. She insists that her speechwriters omit the personal pronoun “I.” But after 9/11, she recognized that she could play an important role as the nation’s comforter in chief. She took a more visible role pushing projects like reintroducing phonics — or sounding out letters — to reading instruction, a goal of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Now tests are reporting significant improvement in reading scores throughout the nation. In some areas, the achievement gap between black and white students has been cut in half.

In the second term, Laura Bush wanted to broaden her reach. Given McBride’s experience, she knew she could pull it off seamlessly. Like Laura herself, McBride has a dulcet manner but is direct and has a tough inner core. The daughter of Italian immigrants, McBride grew up in Bridgeport, Conn. Her father was a factory worker who only finished third grade; her mother died when she was three.

McBride received a bachelor’s degree in international studies from the University of Connecticut, where she also studied three languages. She studied international relations at American University in Washington and at the University of Florence in Italy. Married to Timothy McBride, she has two children.

McBride began working for President Reagan in 1984. From 1987 to 1992, she was director of White House personnel under Reagan and then President George H. W. Bush. Under President George W. Bush, she was special assistant to the president for White House management. where she oversaw departments that support the president and first lady. She then became the State Department’s liaison to the White House.

When Mrs. Bush interviewed her for the job of chief of staff, McBride was senior adviser to the State Department’s Bureau of International Organizations, working with the United Nations. She thus had a good background for arranging overseas trips. Because of security concerns, going to Afghanistan would entail massive planning and coordination.

“That was something I knew I could help her with,” McBride says. “I went about explaining to her how I thought we could make that happen.”

Laura Bush traveled to Afghanistan in March 2005. Her staff of 21 was not told of the plans.

“We planned it quietly; we planned it secretly,” McBride says. “She was never concerned; she was never worried. She knew this was important to do. She wanted to show solidarity with the women there and the children that she's been advocating for, and to call attention to what Americans could do to help and to see the progress.”

Under the Taliban, women could not go out alone in public, obtain an education, or work for a living. Now Mrs. Bush was able to see the first class of graduates at a school for men and women teachers.

“I remember a very vivid and poignant moment when she walked into these classrooms and there was a classroom for women, there was a classroom for men, learning to be teachers. But she walked into the classroom where the men were learning to be teachers,” McBride says. “And one man stood up. He struggled with his English, but he was very clear and emphatic in being able to announce his name and to welcome her to Afghanistan. It was a powerful moment.”

Besides meeting with President Hamid Karzai, Laura Bush met with students who were attending school for the first time in their lives. It was an opportunity to “show support for their willingness to help become educated and rebuild their country,” McBride observes.

Getting the Message Out

On this trip and on many others, Laura’s goal in part was to illustrate for Americans the impact they are having. “We are the most compassionate, generous nation on the face of the earth,” McBride says. “And she's a very good representative of what's good about America.”

Laura Bush focused her husband’s attention on the need to fight AIDS and HIV in Africa, and he decided to put what turned out to be an initial $15 billion into the effort. That has not gone unnoticed.

Reviled by many on the left as a threat to humanity, President Bush is loved by Africans largely because his AIDS initiative has resulted in a significant decline in infections and deaths.

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.

“Whether we’ve traveled to Mozambique or to Ghana or to Nigeria and Liberia, leaders have said to her, if it weren't for these programs, they wouldn't have a chance at development; they wouldn't have a chance to break the cycle of poverty,” McBride says.

On the domestic front, Laura Bush was inspired by a New York Times Magazine story about a young Milwaukee father, a former pimp and drug dealer, who struggled to give his son the father he never had. With that article as a trigger, Laura began thinking about her own experience teaching inner city children in Houston and Dallas. There, Laura would go in on Saturdays on her own time and do remedial work with kids who were having trouble reading.

Mrs. Bush decided to try to help young boys at risk.

“In the earlier stages of the campaign,” Condi Rice said, “I remember her mentioning the overwhelming sadness of what was happening to young men, particularly African-American young men, and wanting to do something about that.”

Rather than promoting an existing program, she conceived of her own, one that focused on a constellation of problems young boys may have. Called Helping America’s Youth, the program that Bush approved and announced in the 2005 State of the Union address consisted of administration initiatives that received increased funding.

It also included a new one — a $150 million, three-year mentoring effort to keep young people from joining gangs by giving them positive role models.

“We spent nine months identifying some of the best practices out there in the country that can be verified and are authoritative that really do help children at risk — not just boys but girls, too,” McBride says.

Those practices were spotlighted at the Helping America's Youth conference at Howard University. In turn, they were highlighted at six regional conferences. The program focused the efforts of nine federal agencies.

A Web-based guide was launched to allow locals to punch in their zip codes and learn about programs and initiatives in their own communities.

Laura Bush reads at least a book a week, and her love of reading has been the centerpiece of her role as first lady. Because of that passion, she founded the National Book Festival, which is now attended by 120,000 people a year.

Early on, Laura had expected to hold a number of State Dinners. That changed after 9/11. Instead, “They had a lot of smaller dinners and working lunches and working dinners,” McBride says.

In the second term, she says, “We had some theme events, beginning with the Shakespeare dinner that she and the president hosted in honor of William Shakespeare's birthday.”

Behind the scenes, McBride broadened Mrs. Bush’s reach within the White House. Besides attending the daily 7:30 a.m. meeting of Bush’s senior staff, McBride lobbied Andy Card to make Laura’s director of projects a member of the Domestic Policy Council. She pushed then White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett to include Laura’s public affairs spokesperson in daily communications strategy and messaging meetings. And Steve Hadley, Bush’s national security director, began including McBride in his National Security Council meetings several times a week.

“In 2006, we elevated Anita from deputy assistant to assistant to the president and moved her seat from along the wall of the Roosevelt Room where presidential meetings are held to the main table,” Josh Bolten, the White House chief of staff, tells me. “That was a recognition of both Anita personally and, more importantly, the large and well-integrated role that the first lady’s office has increasingly played in advancing the president’s policy agenda.”

On a range of issues from education and women’s rights to global health, Burma, conservation, and historic preservation, “The first lady and her able Anita-led staff have been terrific in not only amplifying the president’s message, but in many cases in helping to generate the substantive agenda in the first place,” Bolten adds.

In her first White House job, McBride reviewed letters sent to Reagan and would select about 20 — half pro and half con — for him to read at Camp David every weekend. Reagan would pen responses to each letter.

“When the president was recommending Pershing missiles in Europe and in Germany, there was enormous outcry and outrage,” McBride says. “The letters that came in were really accusing him of destabilizing the world. And we had a very different outcome. He had a strong moral core; he stayed steady, like this president.”

Much as with Reagan, McBride is confident Bush will one day be recognized as a great president, chiefly because he has kept us safe. Besides the counsel Laura provides him, “She has kept the president uplifted,” McBride says.

High Approval Rating

Despite the slings and arrows she has suffered over the years in the liberal media, Laura Bush’s approval rating has stood consistently at 80 percent or more.

In contrast to some other first ladies, there have been no flubs, no gaffes, no scandals. Pressed for a mishap, McBride recalls the time when a suit Laura was to wear at a function in Arizona got left behind. Her personal aide Lindsey Knutson quickly bought another one at a shopping mall.

“Besides having probably the best instincts and judgment of anybody I have ever met, she's very authentic,” McBride says. “I think that she's well respected in our country and around the world because she’s very real and because she’s been a leading voice or an advocate on issues that she has credibility on. For her, everything begins and ends with education.”

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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When Laura Bush entered the White House on Jan. 20, 2001, everyone wanted to know what kind of first lady she would be. Would she be like Mamie Eisenhower? Would she follow in Barbara Bush’s footsteps? Would she be another Hillary Clinton? “I think I’ll just be Laura Bush,”...
Tuesday, 07 October 2008 08:33 AM
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