Laura W. Bush: A Model of a First Lady’s Diplomatic Reach

February 20, 2018

By Diana B. Carlin

Laura BushThe late Lady Bird Johnson, wife of U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, wrote of the role of a U.S. First Lady: “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.”

Another First Lady from Texas, Laura W. Bush, also chose to use the podium during the eight years of her husband’s presidency, and she continues to speak out on issues of importance to her and to NAFSAns. Her work on education issues, her visits to 75 countries while First Lady, and her efforts to encourage equal rights and education for women in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Africa reflect NAFSA’s values.

When I learned that Laura Bush was going to be our opening plenary speaker in Philadelphia and that I had an opportunity to write a blog about her appearance, I didn’t hesitate to say “Yes.” My academic discipline is political communication, and one of my research areas is First Ladies. I’ve met four former First Ladies and had the privilege of sharing lunch with Lady Bird Johnson. I have authored book chapters on four First Ladies and am currently completing a paper on Martha Washington for a conference on Southern First Ladies.

Laura Bush is someone I have not met but who stands out for me as one of our more influential First Ladies. I read her memoir Spoken from the Heart and identified with some of her experiences in Afghanistan—a country I worked in five times as I taught university students and faculty the finer points of academic debate. A few months ago, while attending the National Communication Association conference in Dallas, I was part of a special tour of the George W. Bush Library on the Southern Methodist University campus. I learned from staff members about the work that President and Mrs. Bush continue to do on the world stage. Through a friend, I also had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Bush’s chief of staff Anita McBride for lunch and to learn more details about the George W. Bush Institute’s work on women’s initiatives. Through Mrs. Bush’s own words in her memoir and her speeches and descriptions from those close to her, I have no doubts that she will captivate NAFSAns at her plenary address.

Laura Bush’s international activities are too numerous to catalog in this blog, so let me mention a few that resonated with me. Mrs. Bush was instrumental after 9-11 in ensuring that children in Afghanistan have opportunities to receive an education. In her memoir, she quoted from a speech she gave about her efforts in that country that apply worldwide: “When you give children books and an education, you give them the ability to imagine a future of opportunity, equality, and justice”. She went on to describe the basic items that children, especially girls, needed in Afghanistan to attend and succeed in school and how she and the President helped assemble the 40,000 kits that were prepared for the first day of school.

As First Lady, Laura Bush also traveled extensively in Africa and she assisted in the development of education partnerships between U.S. and African universities. She explained that the “first partnership was with six minority-serving universities, most African-American, plus the University of Texas at San Antonio, which is predominantly Hispanic” and how they shared “expertise... to develop kindergarten through eighth-grade textbooks written in native African languages, illustrated by African illustrators, and if possible, printed in each African country”. This example illustrated her understanding of culture and the need to embrace the cultures where we do our work.

Since Edith Roosevelt accompanied her husband, Teddy, to Panama, U.S. First Ladies have traveled extensively either with their husbands or solo as diplomats for the US. Hearing from one of the women who fulfilled that aspect of a First Lady’s unwritten job description should prove enlightening for a NAFSA audience about the unheralded work that these women perform.


Diana B. Carlin is the former associate provost for graduate and global education at Saint Louis University where she is a professor emerita of communication and the former dean of the graduate school and international programs at the University of Kansas. She serves as a Member at Large on the NAFSA Board of Directors.


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