Laura Bush: Life in Dallas Has Been a 'Slow Adjustment'

The former first lady discusses what's next for her family.

ByJonathan Karl and Karen Travers
February 26, 2009, 5:05 PM

HOUSTON, Feb. 27, 2009— -- Commercial airline travel, trips to the hardware store for nightlights and walks around the neighborhood are all part of everyday life these days for former President George W. Bush and his wife, former first lady Laura Bush.

In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Mrs. Bush said she and her husband were settling into a normal, post-presidency life at their new home in the Preston Hollow section of Dallas after spending a month at their ranch in Crawford while the house was finished.

Mrs. Bush said she has yet to cook a meal herself, because friends have been bringing over prepared dinners to welcome them back to town. The Bushes have had several large dinner parties with old friends, but they had to resort to borrowing furniture to accommodate their guests.

"We have very little furniture. We don't have a kitchen table or a dining room table," she said. "Friends loaned me a kitchen table and the other night I had 16 people for dinner, and I had to borrow chairs from the Secret Service next door."

After years of having everything they wanted right at their fingertips, the Bushes are finding that sometimes the little things are the most difficult to obtain.

"The only thing we don't have are the newspapers. It has been slow to get The Dallas Morning News delivered," she said. "People bring the newspaper to us later in the day. It's just not being delivered yet."

Despite the lack of newspaper delivery at their new home, the former first lady said they are keeping up with the news back in the nation's capital. But they certainly are not operating on Washington's clock.

In fact, Mrs. Bush said she did not watch President Obama's address to Congress Tuesday night because she "totally forgot about it."

"The next day, I thought it was so ironic that, for eight years, I would be a nervous wreck before the State of the Union, and for days before, as George would be preparing his speech, worried about it and thinking about what was going to be in the speech. And this time it came and went, and I didn't even think about it."

Mrs. Bush traveled to Houston this week for the launch of an exhibit of recently discovered ancient artifacts, on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul.

Just like any other Texan, she flew there on a commercial flight.

"It's very difficult," the former first lady said with a smile, talking about giving up private flights on Air Force jets. "That was really, really terrific."

Mrs. Bush said it has been a "slow adjustment," especially when it comes to not feeling stressed all of the time. She noted that her husband had "every problem in the world on his desk one day, and then an empty desk the next day."

"I didn't realize how stressful that life was until I went to bed one night and thought, 'Now what am I going to do tomorrow?' [I] got in bed and sort of worried and then remembered I didn't have anything to do tomorrow except unpack boxes and have fun and see my friends and do things like that."

The Bushes are back on e-mail after forgoing it during their time in the White House. Mrs. Bush said her husband is "very computer literate" and even has a BlackBerry that he uses to keep in touch with former staffers like National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Chief of Staff Josh Bolten.

President Bush is reading from a Kindle, the electronic book reader that Vice President Cheney gave him for Christmas, while Mrs. Bush said she is "struggling" to get familiar again with e-mail and does not have a BlackBerry.

At the White House, Mrs. Bush made support for Afghanistan's women -- who endured brutal repression under the Taliban regime -- one of her signature issues. She traveled three times there, including two solo trips without the president. Previously, no first lady had ever stepped foot in Afghanistan.

Mrs. Bush said she hoped to return to Afghanistan, but for now, she is watching closely to see what the Obama administration does in the region.

So far, she is encouraged by his commitment to Afghanistan and hopes that the government and the American people continue to support rebuilding efforts there.

She said there are "encouraging signs" out of Afghanistan, as well, but the United States must continue to have a presence there, working with the Afghan people and government to rebuild what she called "a failed state."

"What we see is it's very easy to destroy something, but very, very difficult to rebuild," she said. "And that's what we're watching now."

As first lady, Mrs. Bush visited more than 70 countries, bringing awareness to issues like women's rights, education and prevention of HIV/AIDS and malaria.

The opportunity she had to represent the American people abroad is one aspect of the White House that she said she misses. She plans to remain active on her signature issues through the Freedom Institute that will be a part of former President Bush's library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

"The Freedom Institute isn't just freedom from tyranny, although that will be a central part of it, but also freedom from disease, freedom from poverty, and freedom from illiteracy," she said.

Despite the unique bond she will share with first lady Michelle Obama, Mrs. Bush said she did not offer any advice but did talk with her about building a life in the White House and making it a home. Mrs. Bush said she was well aware of the difficulties of establishing a private life with a public that is eager to scoop up any morsel of news the first family makes.

"I think it really does require a very careful balance of the private life that the family wants who live there, and certainly the children who live there, and then the recognition that the public is very, very interested in everything you do.

"I mean [the public is interested in] everything -- from, you know, bringing coffee to bed in the morning to the new dog you're going to get," she said laughing. "You know, those are the things that people really are interested in."

Mrs. Bush's twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, were already in college when the Bushes moved into the White House in 2001, but she understood the concerns that Mrs. Obama has now about protecting her daughters from the spotlight.

"I know that that is what she is most concerned with right now, of course, like any mother would be when you move your children to a new home, and especially that home where it's such a fishbowl and where everything that anyone who lives there [does] gets on the front page of every newspaper or in every magazine."

When the Obamas dropped by a Washington, D.C., school this month and read to a class of second-grade students, the president said the reason for the visit was simple: "We wanted to get out of the White House."

Mrs. Bush can certainly empathize with that feeling of being cooped up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She called it "very isolating" and "difficult" to live inside the bubble that is the presidency.

One of the highlights of moving on to life as a private citizen, she said, is the ability to just take a walk in their new neighborhood and get outside.

She said former President Bush is getting to know the neighbors and is becoming a visible presence on their block.

"I came driving back in the car and saw him out on his bicycle, riding up and down the street to meet the neighbors," she said. "That's one of the great things about private life, and one of the difficult things about living in the White House."

The Bushes' re-entry into the real world comes at a time of great economic hardship in much of the United States, something the former first lady said she is very aware of.

"I see it in the number of 'for sale' signs in houses around in the neighborhoods in Dallas," she said. "I see it especially with a lot of young people Barbara and Jenna's age who are looking for jobs and having trouble finding jobs. I was shocked at what prices were when I really went shopping and went to the stores to buy things for our new house."

Mrs. Bush demurred on whether the steps the Obama administration is taking on the economy are the right ones, noting that she was not an economist, but she defended her husband against the charges that the economic crisis began with his administration.

"I think these are problems that are a long time coming in our economy and they're not any one person's fault, and I think the American people know that, too," she said.

Despite the beating the Republican Party has taken in the last two election cycles, Mrs. Bush thinks the midterm election in 2010 could be a good opportunity for the party to pick up seats in Congress.

Mrs. Bush, perhaps one of the shrewdest political observers in the Bush White House, said the solution for the Republican Party is to "stand for what it's always stood for ... economic sensibility and a good common sense."

She had words of caution for the Democrats in Congress: "It's easy for them to then now be blamed for everything and it's important for them to take responsibility for everything, because they are the ones in the majority."

Mrs. Bush said it was "bittersweet" to fly out of Washington on Inauguration Day with her daughter Barbara and her in-laws, former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush.

"It's sad to leave, but it was also, you know, we're looking forward to our new life and to a private life," she said. "And so, sort of every emotion was part of leaving Washington."

Earlier that day, in their final minutes at the place that was their home for eight years, the Bushes received the Obamas for coffee at the White House, a symbolic passing of the torch before they made the trip up Pennsylvania Avenue to the U.S. Capitol.

At that meeting, Michelle Obama gave Mrs. Bush a journal as a gift and on it was a quote from Louis L'Amour, an American author, written in calligraphy on the top: "There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. Yet that will be the beginning."

"Certainly, that's what this next part of our life is. And both George and I are really looking forward to it. And we're very much content and sort of at peace with this part of our life," Mrs. Bush said.

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