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."

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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.

"I think my parents were very great when we were in college and our dad first became president, they were very protective of us and gave us -- encouraged the press to give us privacy and let us do whatever we felt like we wanted to do," she said. "And they've always encouraged us to follow whatever careers we want to do or explore whatever we're interested in and been supportive of all of our choices, which has been really fantastic."

Laura Bush on 'the Real George Bush'

Barbara Bush also spoke about meeting future first daughters Sasha and Malia Obama and introducing them to their new home.

"[Jenna and I] loved getting to be there when they first came to the White House and we can relate to everything that they're going through regardless of our age difference," she said. "There are only a certain number of people that have been the first children and we can relate to their fear about having to move and having to go to a new school."

"One thing that was really lucky is I have a twin sister," she added, "We're the same age, so we were always going through the same changes in life -- but I made really great friends that I trust still and that are really great friends of mine now."

"That was very helpful to them," said Mrs. Bush. "It really was, to have the emotional support of a sister the same age, going through the same thing, walking to the new school together, you know all of those things was very helpful for them."

When asked how she felt about leaving the White House, Mrs. Bush said: "You know, it's a job that, you know, has a term limit and especially we know this because we came on that day with George's dad … you know you will enjoy the last month or two that we have left and then we'll move home to Texas."

The first lady says she and her husband are looking forward to a normal life.

"I think it's eating out a lot and actually shopping yourself and cleaning and things I think that might be normal life."

When asked to reflect on how she thinks history should remember her husband's presidency, Mrs. Bush said, "I think the history book says he's a very, very strong president. A strong man that made difficult choices during times of great challenge in our country, kept our country safe, liberated other countries from oppressive regimes. I think he'll also be known for having a heart of gold, a compassionate person. I think that's the real George Bush that history will show."

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