An afternoon with the first ladies

GVL / Robert Mathews
Former First Ladies Barbara and Laura Bush answers questions from moderator David Ferriero during the Gerald R. Ford Museum First Ladies Luncheon on Monday in the JW Marriott ballroom.

Robert Mathews

GVL / Robert Mathews Former First Ladies Barbara and Laura Bush answers questions from moderator David Ferriero during the Gerald R. Ford Museum First Ladies Luncheon on Monday in the JW Marriott ballroom.

Austin Metz

Former first ladies Barbara Bush and Laura Bush visited the Grand Rapids area on April 8 to celebrate the role of the first ladies in the United States.

The event, titled “America’s First Ladies: An Enduring Legacy,” was hosted by the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation and was sponsored by Grand Valley State University’s Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies.

Although the event was opened by Susan Ford Bales, former President Gerald R. Ford’s daughter, and was lead by United States archivist David S. Ferriero, all eyes in the sold-out banquet hall were on Mrs. and Mrs. Bush.

Seeing as the event was held on Betty Ford’s 95th birthday, Laura and Barbara both had warm words for the former first lady.

“When George and I were living in Dallas, it was almost the very first of the Komen lunches, the big luncheons that Komen for the Cure, Susan Komen and our friend Nancy Brinker hosted right after she founded Komen, the breast cancer foundation, and every year for that really big luncheon, Susan, you and your mom came,” Laura said. “What it showed was your mother’s unbelievable courage to make something that was a tragedy for her, breast cancer, so public so that every American woman knew to get a mammogram and get the help.”

Laura went on to say that this was the first time the public was made aware of such a tragic problem. As for Barbara, she credited Betty Ford for making a difference in the lives of Americans.

“She was a great friend and I think your mother probably has saved more lives with the Betty Ford Foundation, and I hope she gets great pleasure from the fact that she has changed the world,” Barbara said.

While mixing in a touch of humor with most of her answers, Barbara stoically sat in front in a blue shirt and her signature pearl necklace next to her daughter-in-law as they talked about the role of the first lady during their time in the White House.

“I think in every case, the first lady, the wife of the president, has really done whatever fit her personality and her interest and have always benefited the people of the United States,” Laura said. “We benefit from that expertise and the interest of our first ladies, I think.”

As for Barbara, she wanted to make a difference in literacy in the United States.

“My dad was in the publishing business,” Barbara said. “Of course, we didn’t have television but we sure had radio. We would sit at night in our little house, my mother on one end of the couch and me on the other and my dad in his chair and we all read.”

It was because of this early love of reading that Barbara and Laura both decided to attempt to improve the literacy rate in the U.S.

Many people know of the work they did as first ladies, but how did the Bushes prepare for the White House?

“I think being a governor’s wife or being a congressman’s wife or living in Washington, as George and I did, it really wasn’t very scary being a president’s wife. It made it a cinch,” Barbara said. “And it was nice for me because I knew a lot of people there, plus I had two children who lived there and George and Laura came and helped us.”

As for Laura? She just had to follow the example of her mother-in-law.

“Of course, you know how I did,” Laura said. “I had a mother-in-law and I learned a lot from Barbara. And Barb is really good at not giving her daughter-in-laws advice because she knew that she didn’t really want advice from her mother-in-law.”

Other topics discussed included the help provided by the White House staff, who Barbara said made life “very easy,” as well as how at home both truly felt there.

Following a lunch that consisted of grapefruit chicken, a recipe of Betty Ford’s, and the presentation by the first ladies, those in attendance were able to take part in two panel discussions, one about first ladies as influence makers and the other to honor Betty Ford.
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