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‘I’m not wild about being called first lady’

Laura Bush talks to Katie Couric about her role as education champion, mom, grief counselor and where she looks for inspiration.
/ Source: TODAY

To mark President's Day, “Today” begins a week long special called "America’s First Ladies." In a series of exclusive interviews, we'll be hearing from Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Reagan, Rosalyn Carter and Betty Ford -- the women behind the men who have led us through history. NBC’s Katie Couric kicks off the series with current first lady Laura Bush.

Gracious, gentle and non-controversial are some of the words used to describe Laura Welch Bush.

She was born 58 years ago in Midland, Texas -- the only child of Jenna and Harold Welch, her father a carpenter and her mother a home maker.  She devoured books like “Gone with the Wind" which inspired her to become a teacher and librarian.

She grew up only a mile away from the man who would become her husband and the president. Friends introduced the couple when they were both in their 30's, and after only a three-month courtship they were married.

Katie Couric: “It seems as if since Martha Washington. Americans have been analyzing, critiquing, and evaluating the role of first lady.”

First lady Laura Bush: “And their hairstyles.”

Couric: “What do you think the role of first lady in this country is?”

Bush: “Well I think first ladies ought to do whatever they really want to do.  I think we benefited because whatever the interests or the passions of our first ladies have been -- they had this platform to let us know about those issues.  And so I think that's been a huge benefit.”

Laura Bush's platform -- like her mother-in-law Barbara Bush before her -- has largely focused on literacy and education, as well as heart disease.  She never expected to be thrust into a different role after September 11th 2001.

Couric: “In a way you had to become America’s grief counselor, if you will.  Because you did have to assume a role that perhaps you never thought or hoped certainly that you would have to assume.”

Bush: “Certainly I never thought about… that. But I actually think that I have the right temperament to be able to do that.  And I had worked with children. And that had been my whole life -- my whole career as a teacher [and] educator.  And so in many ways I was prepared for that, although I didn't know it.”

Unlike her immediate predecessor Hillary Rodham-Clinton, many believe Laura Bush has taken a more traditional approach to the role.

Bush: “In some ways it is, in the sense that, you know. I’m not that actively involved in a lot of policy. But then in other ways when I’ve had to opportunity to represent our country or do the radio address about the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban.”

In fact, in November 2001, Laura Bush made history becoming the first, first lady to make a presidential radio address.

Bush: “Right after I gave that radio address, I happened to go shopping.  And all the women who worked in the cosmetic counter at the department store I went to, said, ‘Thanks for giving that radio address’ and ‘I really want the women of Afghanistan and the women of Iraq to know that American women are interested in them.’” 

Couric: “I know you say that you don't really get involved in policy.  But do you ever say to your husband, the president at night, you know this is something I care deeply about?”

Bush: “Sure, of course, especially education issues.”

Couric: “It’s interesting because no matter how involved or uninvolved you are in policy, a first lady has a huge capacity it seems to influence.”

Bush: “And certainly to influence the president because the first lady is the closest one to the president.”

Couric: “I read that you don't care for the term ‘first lady.’”

Bush: “First lady.” [Laughter]

Couric: “Is that right?”

Bush: “You know, I’m not wild about… being called first lady. A lot of people actually think they need to address me as first lady, like that's my name.”

Couric: “You'd rather just be called Laura Bush.”

Bush: “That's right.”

She may not love the title, but she does love the accommodations.

Bush: “The White House is so beautiful.  There's magnificent furniture that belonged to other presidents and then there are beautiful flowers and paintings that are magnificent -- art like I’ll never have another opportunity to live with and I’ve loved that.”

There is no real job description for first lady. Instead Laura Bush says she often looks to the past for inspiration.

Bush: “This is the Vermet room where we have many of the portraits of the most recent first ladies. Lady ‘Bird’ Johnson right here this lovely portrait of her and I do think about her very often especially when I’m at the ranch.”

Couric: “Tell me why you admire her so much.”

Bush: “Well, I admire how she is I think she is just is very, very tough. She has an accent that I admire of course, that Texas accent. I feel close to her.”

Couric: “She seems like she had a sweetness, but yet a real toughness too.”

Bush: “She's really tough like most Texas women are. But at the same time always lovely.”

Couric: “I think her father said she was cute as a 'lady bird' when she was a baby and that's how she got that name.”

Bush: “Bird, yeah little nickname.”

Couric: “Well it is a beautiful portrait.”

Bush: “It is a beautiful portrait.”

Couric: “Will your portrait be done at some point soon or how do they do that?”

Bush: “We will actually add President Clinton’s and Senator Clinton’s portraits to the White House. Theirs have not been added yet.”

Couric: “Oh so they're added after?”

Bush: “They're added after you leave, so you have the painting done after you leave and they're added to the collection. This painting is such a really beautiful one of Jackie Kennedy and of course when you live here you're very aware of what she did with the beautification of the white house. There's so much evidence of her here.”

Couric: “Did you ever have an opportunity to meet her?”

Bush: “I never met her. No, and I’m sorry I didn't have that chance. And this beautiful portrait of Nancy Reagan is done by the same painter that did Jackie Kennedy’s.”

Couric: “Mrs. Reagan looks a little sad in that portrait to me.”

Bush: “She looks wistful, I think. But it’s a beautiful, beautiful portrait.”

Couric: “Seems like you've learned a little bit from all of them in terms of how you fill your role.”

Bush: “I have really I don't know if it really works out in how I fill my role and then of course now we're coming to our favorite first lady.”

Couric: “You don't want to be in chateau bow wow with your mother-in-law?

Bush: “That's right, my mother-in-law. She's the first lady I love. And she's so great. She's just tough and funny, you know you just couldn't ask for a better role model than Barbara Bush.”

Couric: “She is tough though. Did she ever scare you?”

Bush: “She is tough. She did certainly scare me as a daughter-in-law when I was new to the family.”

Couric: “Really? How so?”

Bush: “She probably hopes she still scares me a little bit.”

Couric: “A little fear is a good thing right? Or can be.”

Bush: “But she is so terrific and very supportive. She loves her children like every mother ought to love her children. And of course that's one of the main reasons I love her because she loves George like I do.”

The president and first lady also have another title they're proud of -- parents. Laura Bush admits raising her twin daughters in the public eye, can be challenging. She has repeatedly said they didn't run for office and her daughters should be allowed to be as normal as possible.

Couric: “You've also allowed them to make mistakes.  Like all kids do.  But the problem is, I guess when they do, when they stumble, it's a very public thing.”

Bush: “It's magnified. They got a very nice letter from Lucy Johnson, which I really appreciate, that she wrote Barbara and Jenna after they made the news.  And said that her mother had always told them, Linda and Lucy when they lived here, don't do anything you don't want on the front page of The New York Times because if you do, that's where it will be. 

Couric: “If you had to offer advice to someone else about this experience, what would you say?”

Bush: “Well, I would say to take advantage of every single minute of it and to make use of the platform you have while you're here. I think it takes a little bit for you to realize that you really do have a platform and people really do listen and want to know about you and want to know what your life is like. And then to love every minute of it while you're here.”