Lady Bird Johnson once said, “The Constitution of the United States does not mention the First Lady. She is elected by one man only. The statute books assign her no duties; and yet, when she gets the job, a podium is there if she cares to use it. I did.”
Perhaps there is no clearly defined role for the first lady of the United States because her principal responsibility is to continue to be her husband’s most trusted adviser and partner. It’s a role that she’s been in since the beginning of their marriage and one that she will endure during his presidential term. While her husband serves as commander in chief, she will serve alongside him as a policy advisor, diplomat, hostess and national role model.
The role of first lady also comes with great influence and opportunity. During her time as first lady, she becomes the leading advocate for important initiatives and policies affecting our country and people around the world. She will create her own image as America’s First Lady, and, in the end, she will leave a legacy that will have impacted our society.
On Thursday, November 15, the LBJ Presidential Library hosted The Enduring Legacies of America’s First Ladies, a conference that examined the influential role of first ladies in American politics, domestic policy and global diplomacy. The conference included two panel discussions, a special presentation of iconic images and an evening session with former first lady Barbara Bush and former first lady Laura Bush.
While first ladies play an important role, the cornerstone of their work remains the family. During the second panel discussion, First Ladies—A Family View, children of presidents and first ladies shared their perspectives on living in the White House. Panelists included Barbara Bush, Steve Ford, Jenna Bush Hager and Lynda Johnson Robb. When speaking about his parents, former President and Mrs. Gerald R. Ford, Ford often referred to them as a team. Whether they were faced with a personal or public challenge, they worked together to overcome it.
Later, during the evening session, Reflections of First Ladies Mrs. Barbara Bush and Mrs. Laura Bush, former first lady Mrs. Barbara Bush shared the importance of faith, family and friends in her life—especially during her husband’s and her son’s presidencies. Former first lady Laura Bush also noted how faith and family helped her and her family get through difficult times in the White House. When the attacks were loud and harsh about her husband, President George W. Bush, she found peace and strength in knowing that there were many Americans praying for them. Earlier, Jenna Bush Hager told the audience one thing they might not know about her mom is that she is strong, but she doesn’t shout.
While former first lady Laura Bush became actively involved in issues of national and global concern, with a particular emphasis on education, health care and human rights, she is also remembered for what she said shortly after the 9/11 attacks occurred. She said parents need to reassure their children that they’re safe. Just as she was trying to comfort the country, she was telling parents to comfort their children. She said she said that because she needed her mother to comfort her. After the attacks happened, she spoke to her mother on the telephone and told her that they were okay, but she still needed to hear her mother say everything was okay. The comfort that she was able to provide to the country was rooted from the comfort she was receiving personally.
The Enduring Legacies of America’s First Ladies was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about these influential women and how they handled this role. While first ladies play a significant role in public service, their most important role is still as wife and mother. And, the qualities that they possess and share with their husband and children such as love and protection are the same ones that they are going to share with the country.