Texan of the Year 2018: Laura W. Bush

If you think change is hard, what is truly difficult in this world is driving positive social change without revving the engines of controversy, filling the holes in individual lives without sowing collective division.

Looking across the Lone Star State and surveying the world at large, there is one person who stands out for her quiet ability to unify people behind a common vision, to focus public attention on what’s critical for our society, and to produce change without concern for who gets credit. In a divided world, her graceful style has helped our country move forward on critical issues and enabled her to leave a lasting mark not only in the past year but over a lifetime of work. Her name is Laura W. Bush, and she is the 2018 Texan of the Year.

Consider that in June — on Father’s Day, no less — she flipped on its head a national debate over a zero-tolerance policy that was separating migrant families at the border. She did so by publishing one of the most consequential op-eds of the year. In the column, she offered a plain message that regardless of what our immigration policies are, separating children from their parents does not reflect our nation’s core values. Her decision to weigh in shifted a raging debate almost as soon as the piece went public. Our public conscience returned to what should have been an innate sense that separating mothers and fathers from their children is not who we are as Americans, and the current administration appropriately altered course. Wise leaders often say little so that when they speak, their words carry greater weight.

Civic Leadership

Laura Bush’s life and career have been about learning, and she has helped ingrain in our culture a deeper understanding of the need for public schooling and preserving our history — the need to both develop within our communities the skills necessary to thrive in life and the tools required to understand and expand free and democratic societies. This work was recognized in October at an event for the National Archives Foundation in Washington, D.C.

More broadly, her efforts throughout the year repaired communities devastated by wildfires and hurricanes, developed critical lines of medical research, preserved the environment, and helped forge new leaders who will drive civic change in Texas, in the United States, and in countries with a stark need for sensible and farsighted change agents.

Our reading of Laura Bush is this: For at least a quarter of a century, she has carved a path of consequential leadership. She finds points of leverage where the right approach can move a policy or win support among a broad number of people. She sees embedded within our civic discourse a larger purpose that can inspire others to embrace change, and she offers the logic that enables leaders to put their creativity behind solving seemingly intractable problems. Through it all, she offers an optimistic vision that leads the public to focus on the very people whose lives hang in the balance of a particular issue.

We once heard Mrs. Bush tell an audience of Teach for America teachers to remember, as they enter the classroom, to “treat each student with dignity and respect” and then added “because they deserve it.” The thought was classic Laura W. Bush, and one she repeated to us recently. No one would dispute the point, but once it was stated out loud it had the power to orient a new teacher’s approach in the classroom. What’s more, making the dignity of each student a teacher’s guiding principle makes it more likely that each teacher will do all of the hard work necessary to provide every student with a good education. The comment itself was a lever that likely moved more lives than we will ever know.

Building Institutions

Another important area to highlight in Mrs. Bush’s career is her record of leadership in creating new civil institutions. By our count, over the past two decades, she has founded or co-founded at least a half-dozen nonprofits and other initiatives that continue to improve our world.

More than a decade ago, when she was still first lady, officials from Texas Tech University in Lubbock approached her with an idea. Everyone knew that the Bushes were preparing to move back to Texas as George W. Bush’s presidency drew to a close, and these officials had a request. She had helped raise awareness for heart disease in women among other issues, would she be interested in helping Tech expand an important area of medical inquiry?

Medical research is often conducted with men in mind, they told her. Women needed more focus. The problem, Mrs. Bush said to us recently, is that men and women have different medical needs. “Women’s hearts are smaller” on average, she said as one example. So some medical devices developed for men often aren’t ideal for women. Mrs. Bush saw the purpose and potential of this idea right away. She got onboard and lent her name to the effort. Texas Tech then launched the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women’s Health.

Over the past decade this initiative has poured at least $3 million into new research and has expanded beyond Lubbock. Today, the Laura Bush Institute has a footprint on every Texas Tech campus across the state. Mrs. Bush, as well as her twin daughters, have headlined luncheons to raise money and awareness. This initiative is now driving a critical and necessary change to something that can touch millions of lives: conducting medical research with the needs of all people in mind.

Another effort that may not make headline news but that is improving lives across this country is the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries. A lot of people remember Mrs. Bush helping rebuild the collections of libraries devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but when asked if that storm was what motivated her to worry about the nation’s libraries, she fires back without hesitation. “No. That started at the beginning” of the Bush presidency, she said. So for nearly two decades, the Laura Bush Foundation has been giving grants to improve library collections in the country’s neediest schools.

True to form, Mrs. Bush’s approach has been to ensure the initiative makes a significant difference. After Katrina, there was a focus on reconstituting flooded libraries in Louisiana and Mississippi. Her foundation acted on the belief that rebuilding libraries would help renew the education in devastated areas and bring a sense of normalcy back to children’s lives.

More recently, her foundation dedicated itself to helping schools devastated by storms and fires that ravaged parts of Texas, Florida, California, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. In two years, the foundation has directed more than $2 million to school libraries in the wake of disasters.

There is also a larger idea behind this initiative. Anita McBride, a former chief of staff for Mrs. Bush and an ongoing adviser, explained recently that the former first lady sees the structure and normalcy of attending school as something that can help children move past the trauma of an experience like a natural disaster. Rebuilding school libraries then becomes a kind of civic renewal that can help re-establish an anchor for local communities struggling in the wake of devastation. Anyone who doubts the importance of that likely hasn’t walked through a community that has just been hit by a tornado, flood, wildfire or other devastating event.

For Mrs. Bush this effort goes a step further. Sitting across from us on a recent morning in her third-floor office at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, she said that her foundation recognizes we’re in a digital age, so libraries need more than just books. But her foundation pays for books and other supplies while working with publishers to encourage discounts and in-kind donations because those actual books are so important.

Running her finger from left to right as if she were reading with a child, Mrs. Bush said we can’t lose sight of the importance of books that children can hold in their hands, where they turn the pages, and read with adults. Physical books enable students to focus, something increasingly important in an age when all ages are spending more time staring at screens.

Keeping the conversation focused, Mrs. Bush returns to the importance of specific learned activities. “Reading from left to right is not intuitive,” she said. “You have to learn it.” As she has said many times, it is crucial for adults — especially parents — to read with new readers, help them through it and fashion moments to celebrate the joy of learning something new and exploring stories. Doing so helps build important bonds, underscores the importance of reading and learning, and gives children an opportunity to let their imaginations run wild. All of this, including the physical act of writing, is important for a child’s intellectual development.

Listening to her talk, we couldn’t help but think of a comment from James J. Blanchard, the chairman of the board of the National Archives Foundation, who said Laura Bush is the “nation’s teacher and librarian.”  She has never lost the love and deep interest of using books to connect with and expand the world of children. Nor has she lost sight of the broader importance of reading and education.

Through the George W. Bush Presidential Center, she is working alongside the former president to launch several initiatives to improve leadership in education, increase attention on the critical years of middle school where students build foundational skills that enable them to complete high school, and preserve accountability standards in education.

Given the opportunity, Mrs. Bush puts her work in education and reading into perspective. In a recent speech, she explained that education is a building block of democracy because it enables the next generation to develop the skills and perspective necessary to sustain a free society.

“We must prepare our children and grandchildren with the tools they need to be informed, engaged citizens who care about individual liberty and democracy,” she said in that speech. “We must teach them history. We must insist they understand the government they are blessed to live under. We must teach our children how to listen, to show empathy, to show civility in the face of disagreement, and to overcome malice and hate. And, we must model the behavior ourselves.”

While meeting with us, she builds on that point by noting we need to also deal with the tougher moments of our history. “We have a great country,” she said before noting the mistakes our forebears made. “Slavery, for example, is what George [W. Bush] calls our nation’s birthmark.” But, she continued, the sweep of American history is toward progress, toward the expansion of rights. In short, Americans need to know their history, know how their government works, and they need to be engaged.

In the middle of our conversation, we turn to an issue that put her in the spotlight this year, and we ask her why she decided to engage on it. In late spring, the current administration was following a controversial policy that separated families at the border. News pages were filled with heartbreaking stories about children taken from their parents as they crossed into the country illegally. There was no shortage of commentary on the issue, but there was a lack of direction.

“I woke up on Father’s Day and saw images of children being torn from their families, and it broke my heart. I thought this was a time when my voice could make a difference.” At first, Mrs. Bush told us, she thought about placing a call to the secretary of Homeland Security, who oversees the Border Patrol, but then thought better of it. A private call might sway an official, but a public statement has a better chance of changing the public’s mind and therefore can make more of a difference on an issue like this.

The piece she subsequently published changed policy and reminded us of other examples from the past of how she has led effectively. Two months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for example, she stepped into the public spotlight to deliver the president’s weekly radio address to the nation, something no other first lady had ever done. Those remarks helped shift public attention on Afghanistan from a purely military conflict to one that ultimately would be judged on how that country treats and protects the rights of women.

“Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes,” she said then. “They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. Yet the terrorists who helped rule that country now plot and plan in many countries. And they must be stopped. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”

Mrs. Bush went on to visit Afghanistan as first lady, including one trip where she met the first woman to become governor of a province in that country, Habiba Sarabi. When she arrived, Mrs. Bush famously said to Sarabi, “I told you I would come,” which was no small feat given the security risk. Mrs. Bush also led efforts to build civil institutions to protect and expand the rights of women in Afghanistan and across the globe, efforts that continue today.

She pushed to expand the number of women teachers in Afghanistan, for example, to address a cultural issue specific to the country. Women can teach girls and boys there, but girls are constrained from attending classes taught by men. She also helped found and is still engaged with the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, which is seated at Georgetown University and continues to support the expansion of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

More recently, Mrs. Bush and the Bush Center launched an initiative called We Lead that focuses on developing women leaders in the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan. “George and I believe that women are catalysts for change in their countries… . We bring them to the United States to show them the civil institutions we inherited and may take for granted. Our hope is that our We Lead Scholars return to their countries empowered to make a difference.”

This work builds on a previous program that helped women leaders in Egypt and Tunisia. This type of training and education can have an outsize impact on the world. Simply elevating more women to leadership roles in these societies cuts against radicalization.

At the Bush Center, Mrs. Bush also helped launch the First Ladies Initiative, which bolsters the work of first ladies around the world to improve the lives of women and girls in their countries. It’s a simple idea — create a program that shares insights and builds support networks between first ladies around the world — that can have a profound impact.

As first lady Mrs. Bush traveled to at least 75 countries and served as a diplomatic voice for American policies, including the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the Malaria Initiative and more. Many of these programs continue to this day. They demonstrate American compassion and serve a strategic purpose of building alliances and alleviating conditions that breed extremism.

To get a better sense of the broader influence she has had on the world stage, we reached out to Stephen Hadley, who was President Bush’s second National Security Adviser. “The NSC [National Security Council] and her staff worked very closely together,” he said of his work with Mrs. Bush. “We thought she was a terrific asset for our country.” He went on to describe her leadership by saying she engages in issues because she sincerely believes in them, she picks her spots and is “an authoritative voice.” All of those things, he said, “make her effective.”

Sense of Place and Purpose

One hard truth about our society is that many people expect consequential leaders to be people who shout from the rooftops and focus exclusively on hard-edged issues. But that’s not the only type of leadership needed to improve the human condition. What Mrs. Bush offers is a form of leadership that recognizes the need and desire in the human soul for beauty and a sense of place and purpose and quietly drives change to help more people achieve that.

This aspect of her leadership may cause some people to miss the depth of her influence; we believe this aspect of her leadership practice is an essential reason she has earned the title of Texan of the Year.

For her entire public life, Mrs. Bush has pushed for the preservation of our country’s historic places. From Civil War battlefields to school buildings that were once used by African-American students throughout the South to historic courthouses across the country, she has long worked to protect our history by serving on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, among other work. This commitment to our past helps Americans understand the arc of our history and realize that change and progress are possible even as we struggle to comprehend and amend the mistakes — sometimes terrible mistakes — we have made along the way.

Similarly, Mrs. Bush works to remind us of the importance and beauty of our natural world. The Bush Center is surrounded by native plants that need less water and offer better habitat for wildlife than typically found in manicured landscapes. The center worked with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin to use a blend of native grasses that would serve not only as beautiful gardens, but as cover for wildlife. The blend of grasses is now commercially available, and Mrs. Bush points out “we haven’t had to use city water” to irrigate the Bush Center because of the types of plants used and because of a cistern buried on the grounds. On their ranch in Crawford, the Bushes are also restoring native grasses, and they have a tree farm and a wetland preserve.

More broadly, Mrs. Bush has advocated for oceanic conservation efforts, including marine reserves that have been created in the Pacific Ocean that are saving marine life today. In 2011 she founded Texan By Nature to help drive conservation efforts across the state. The idea is simple and proving to be effective. Why not create a forum to bring together businesses, environmental experts, landowners and other stakeholders to develop ideas that can conserve and even restore the environment in ways that align with economic needs of the state?

As a result, today Texan By Nature has more than 60 conservation groups and numerous businesses and other stakeholders working in concert on new initiatives. One of which started as a plan to help the monarch butterfly as it migrates across the Americas by restoring and protecting habitat from Mexico to Canada, and it has since blossomed into a certification program for those who restore or conserve specific habitats or resources.

The idea was that by helping the monarch thrive, we would see other species that depend on the same habitat thrive as well. And it’s working. The group estimates its program to create monarch habitats, along with its Conservation Wrangler program, last year alone amplified projects that touch 19.5 million acres and nearly 6 million people, and they delivered $18.2 million in economic benefits.

“The choices we make now will shape the world for the next generation,” Mrs. Bush says. “And that is why it is so important that we protect and preserve the beauty of our natural world, ensuring it will be around for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.”

In a time when natural conservation and environmental protection is attacked as unconservative, Mrs. Bush stands as an example that it is precisely the opposite. It is wise and thoughtful and entrepreneurial and complementary of conservative principles.

Uncommon Leadership

There are few leaders in the world who have proved so adept at creating new institutions that produce measurable results in such a wide variety of areas. It’s not every day that effective leaders find those critical junctures where the right words or the right actions gain the leverage necessary to move the world. And it’s not often that a leader does all of this while uniting others behind a common vision. Fortunately, we have all of these things with our 2018 Texan of the Year, Laura W. Bush.