First Lady Reflects on Life at the White House

First Lady Laura Bush says she starts planning for Christmas at the White House nine months in advance, and for good reason. Approximately 60,000 guests will visit the White House over the holidays.

Earlier this week the first lady gave "Nightline" a peek at the result of all that planning.

The Bushes' last Christmas at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is "certainly bittersweet," she said. "It's fun, every year we have a big group of our friends from Texas who come and spend a weekend with us and they were here this last weekend and when they left they weren't just hugging us goodbye -- they were hugging all the butlers and all the ushers and everyone goodbye because they knew it would probably be the last time they get to see them. So it was sweet."

Watch the story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

After eight years in the White House, Bush is clearly comfortable in the traditional, ceremonial role of first lady. In a recent interview with "Nightline," President George W. Bush said that his "fabulous wife" was one of his biggest sources of strength.

She confesses that at the beginning of her husband's first term she dreamt that her years in the White House would be a series of "state dinners and entertaining."

She recalled the first state dinner the Bushes hosted at the White House, for Mexico.

"I think it was on Sept. 6, 2001, and we had fireworks, went out onto the balcony after the entertainment and watched fireworks over Washington," she said. "And that night was really, I think, what I thought our years in the White House would be."

Just days later, the course of the presidency, and of the nation, was changed.

"After that when we'd meet the families of someone who had lost someone that day, they wanted us to know about their person that they loved more than anyone, that they lost."

Find Her Voice as First Lady

Over the years, Laura Bush has added dramatically to her role of traditional first lady, as we had the chance to see firsthand a few weeks ago when she invited us along on "Starbright" -- the first lady's version of Air Force One -- for her final solo foreign trip as first lady.

She had come to announce a new partnership between Panama and the U.S. for breast cancer research, as part of what has been called her global pink diplomacy efforts on behalf of women around the world.

When she married George W. Bush, the first lady made him promise that she'd never have to give a political speech. She admits to being reticent and "sort of an introvert," but now says she's not afraid to speak up about what's important to her.

Her voice has gotten louder -- and bolder -- as the years have gone by. She is now an international human rights advocate, fighting for women in Afghanistan and for freedom in Burma. While her husband's approval rating has plummeted, hers has hovered up near 70 percent.

"I just think that just what's really happened is I've learned more about issues like Burma, which once I knew more about them I had more of an opportunity to speak out," she said.

Barbara Bush, now 27, also sat down for a rare interview during the trip to Panama, and said that she's "very happy with the way things went" for her as first daughter.

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