Michelle Obama, Laura Bush Bemoan Focus on Their Looks, Not Their Work

In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Tuesday to highlight the role of first ladies, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama sat down together to dish on their husbands and share the realities of constant public scrutiny, telling ABC News' Cokie Roberts that there's no preparation for life in the White House.

Michelle Obama said first ladies have "probably the best jobs in the world" because their husbands, "who have to react and respond to crisis on a minute-by-minute basis … come into office with a wonderful, profound agenda, and then they're faced with the reality. On the other hand, we [first ladies] get to work on what we're passionate about."

"I think that that's something that I would encourage all first ladies to never lose sight of. You have an opportunity to speak to your passions and to really design and be very strategic about the issues you care most about. And I just found it just a very freeing and liberating opportunity," Obama said in Dar es Salaam, where she and the former first lady are attending the George W. Bush Institute's first annual African First Ladies Summit.

The summit brought together about 10 first ladies from across Africa.

Roberts mentioned that the nation's first first lady, Martha Washington, had written a letter to her niece, saying, she felt like a "Chief State Prisoner."

Asked by Roberts whether she can identify, Obama, laughing, said, "There are prison elements to it. But it's a really nice prison. … You can't complain. But there is definitely elements that are confining."

Obama and Bush commiserated about how the focus sometimes turns to what they wear, or even their hair, instead of what they do.

"Being able to pursue our passions and do things that not only help our country and connect us with the rest of the world, it's a great privilege," Obama said. "So while people are sort of sorting through our shoes and our hair - whether we cut it or not."

Bush then mentioned Obama's famous hairdo, saying, "Whether we have bangs."

"Whether we have bangs," Obama added. "Who would have thought? I didn't call that one. … But we take our bangs and we stand in front of important things that the world needs to see. And, eventually, people stop looking at the bangs and they start looking at what we're standing in front of. That's the power of our role."

Roberts asked Bush, 66, about how she has said in the past that first ladies are more complicated than they are portrayed in the media. Bush said she believes it's because "in the United States, it has a lot to do with the way you look."

"That's a lot of the discussion about women," Bush said. "That's a problem everywhere in the United States, for girls as well. The way you look - girls worry about all sorts of problems that they shouldn't have to worry about. They should be worried about what they're doing and how they're being educated instead of whether they look pretty or they look sexy. But that's the way we treat women, sadly."

Roberts asked both women whether they "get put in a box."

Bush said, "Yes, a little bit," while Obama said, "Absolutely."

Obama, 49, said, "I constantly get asked, especially in the first term, 'Are you more like Laura Bush, or are you more like Hillary Clinton?' And, I'm like, is that it?'

Added Bush: "Exactly the problem: everyone said - reporters - 'Are you Hillary Clinton or Barbara Bush? And I always just said, 'Well, I think I'll be Laura Bush. I do Laura Bush pretty well, having grown up as her."

Obama dinged the president, lovingly saying, "I love my husband, but sometimes when he has, like, five things to do at one time, it's funny to watch it. You don't know where your jacket is right now, can't find that shoe, Mr. President."

Bush said with a laugh, "I always think, 'but they're good at focus.'"

Obama said her daughters, Malia and Sasha, aren't afraid to press their father, recounting that they will say: "Sooo, what about climate change? What about the tigers?"

Bush, dressed in a red dress, and Obama, in a black and white one, seemed comfortable with one another. Obama praised Bush for helping with her transition when they came into the White House, calling her "just so helpful."

"That's a powerful lesson for other leaders, is that there's a lot of give and take when you're campaigning, but when the dust settles, we are all in this together," Obama said. "Having your predecessors be people who are willing to extend themselves on behalf of the country, to help with that transition makes the world of difference.

"But nothing prepares you. Nothing prepares you for this role. I mean, it is so startling that the transition of power in the United States happens so quickly that you don't have access to the house until the president takes the oath of office."

Bush then noted that, "During the inaugural parade, one family moves out and the next family moves in."

Both Bush and Obama lamented that it's hard to complete any first lady's agenda in one or two terms, with Obama saying, "Four to eight years is really a blink of an eye. And you often find that you're just starting to get your teeth into your issues, and then it's time to go."

"But none of the work that we do and any of us does will be concluded at the end of a term," Obama said. "I tell the young people that I work with around health, the military families that I support, that for me, these issues are - I say a forever proposition."

"Michelle's right," Bush said. "We'll never finish with education. We'll never get to rub our hands together and say, 'Oh, we took care of that. There will be another little class of kindergartners. And it's something we'll always work on."

Bush also recalled the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when she was on Capitol Hill scheduled to brief the Senate Education Committee on early childhood education.

"[I] got to the Capitol and joined Senator Kennedy in his office. Then, as we watched on television and started to see the towers fall," Bush said. "And we knew - he knew and I knew - that everything had changed for us and for our country, really. And that's what happens to presidents also; those kinds of issues come up that you don't expect, and it changes your whole focus."

(Image Credit: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)"]

In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Tuesday to highlight the role of first ladies, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama sat down together to dish on their husbands and share the frustrations of constant public scrutiny, telling ABC News

Their husbands, President Obama and former President George W. Bush, were also together today, but they instead stood in silence in front of the U.S. embassy in Tanzania at a wreath-laying at the memorial for victims of a terrorist bombing there in 1998.