Laura Bush leaned into the microphone and smirked.
“I’m happy to be here,” she said. “As you notice, I’m wearing orange.”
With a witty tone, the former First Lady spoke Wednesday night for the D’Aniello Family Speaker Series held at the Martin J. Whitman School of Management. Bush, 72, discussed her experiences advocating for literacy, education and women’s rights in full room of more than 200 people. Afterward, she traveled to the Onondaga County War Memorial to be the featured speaker at the 2019 Boypower Dinner, a major fundraiser for the Boy Scouts of America.
At Syracuse University for about 25 minutes, Bush reflected on her time in the White House, where she lived from 2001 to 2009 with her husband, the former President George W. Bush, also 72 years old.
As one of the most visible and important women in the world, her primary cause centered on education. She recalled growing close with her second-grade teacher in Midland, Texas, then knowing from the moment she walked onto campus at Southern Methodist University as a college freshman that she wanted to be a teacher. A traditional office job, she quipped, would be “boring.” Bush’s first job after college was as a second-grade teacher.
She also spoke Wednesday of advocating for equal education in Afghanistan, especially among women. She has helped enrollment increase in primary schools there, and she’s proud that the number of women-owned businesses has also ticked upward. She has said it’s important for the U.S. to remain engaged with Afghanistan.
Reflecting on her time in the White House, she said she misses most of the people, the staff members with whom she associated every day. Living there, where former presidents such as Abraham Lincoln once lived, inspired her to forge ahead through conflicts.
“There’s a sort of reassurance in living in that same house they lived in,” Bush said.
The audience laughed several times, including when she said what she missed most about life in Washington: the chef. Then, she joked about a night after one of her husband’s speeches, when he asked her how she thought he did as they were driving home.
“Tell me the truth,” George said to her as they pulled into the garage.
“Well,” Laura told him, “it wasn’t that good.”
“We drove the car into the wall,” she said later, and the audience burst into laughter.
Switching between a tone of light-heartedness and seriousness, Bush explained her love for literacy and the environment. In 2011, she founded Texan by Nature, a nonprofit aimed at natural resource conservation in Texas. Foremost, she encourages corporate campuses to use native plants. Her mother was a bird watcher, which in part inspired her to develop an appreciation for nature.
On literature, she authored a 2010 memoir, “Spoken From the Heart,” in which she wrote about her upbringing and years in the White House, including defenses of her husband’s decision to invade Iraq and his decision not to visit New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.
Since serving as the First Lady, she’s had plenty of free time. She enjoys walking in nearby neighborhoods — her husband calls her an “urban hiker — and hiking in the country’s national parks. In 2016, she published a bestselling children’s book with daughter Jenna Bush Hager, “Our Great Big Backyard,” which is about limiting screen time and spending more time outdoors.
When asked about her husband, Bush said he’s doing “great.” Now 10 years after his presidency, George Bush enjoys painting, a hobby he adopted three years after leaving the White House. Inspired by Winston Churchill, an avid painter, George “needed a pastime,” Laura said. In 2017, He published “Portraits of Courage,” a coffee-table book of oil paintings that functions as a tribute to veterans in the U.S.
As for her own pastime, the former teacher said she enjoys reading. She’s currently enjoying “Mama’s Last Hug,” a book about how animal emotions relate to those of humans. She said it’s about maintaining an open heart and understanding the connected world in which we live.