Michelle Obama, Laura Bush offer advice to other first ladies at African summit

CNN
Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 10:51am

In a rare joint appearance, first lady Michelle Obama and Former first lady Laura Bush were on stage, laughing about shared experiences and giving advice to fellow first ladies--even talking about Michelle's 'bang backlash' that swept the nation.

The two women spoke at the First Ladies Summit in Africa on Tuesday, as President Barack Obama and the first family wrapped up their week-long trip to the fast-developing continent.

First to address the crowd, Mrs. Bush began by acknowledging that she, Mrs. Obama, and the nine other African first ladies were voted into their role by one person, and that they can choose to take advantage of their positions.

"Lady Bird Johnson realized that she had a podium because her husband was president and she chose to use it," Mrs. Bush said. "I know that the first ladies in this room are also using their podiums."

Calling the women in the room 'advocates' and 'agents for change', Mrs. Bush announced the Bush Institute is now supporting efforts to continue bringing together these influential women, saying "none of you needs to do it alone, that's why we are launching the First Ladies initiative at the Bush Institute." Mrs. Bush said they will be convening the first ladies together annually "to highlight the significant role they can play in addressing significant issues in their countries."

The current first lady shared Mrs. Bush's sentiments.

"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," Mrs. Obama said.

It's also a "freeing and liberating opportunity" from the tight security and restrictions the first family faces in the White House.

Asked by the moderator if she feels like a prisoner--a reference to Martha Washington, the first ever first lady, who told her niece she felt like a "state prisoner"--Mrs. Obama jokingly replied: "No, there are prison elements to it. But it's a really nice prison, so--"

"But with a chef," Mrs. Bush interjected, drawing laughs from the crowd.

"You can't complain," Mrs. Obama added, jovially. "But there is definitely elements that are confining."

However, she added, being first lady is better than being president.

"We have probably the best jobs in the world because, unlike our husbands who have to react and respond to crisis on a minute by minute basis, they come into office with a wonderful, profound agenda, then, they are faced with the real world. On the other hand, we get to work on what we are passionate about and that is 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 about."

Both first ladies agreed there can be distractions when they are really trying to get a point across. Mrs. Obama's fresh cut bangs, for example, threw the public into a media frenzy.

Mrs. Obama's advice? Stand strong by the issues you believe in.

"While people are sorting through our shoes and our hair and whether we cut it or not... whether we have bangs. Who would have thought? I didn't call that one...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 are standing in front of," she said.

Mrs. Bush said she and her husband had many issues they were passionate about when George W. Bush first took office -- but then, America was attacked on 9/11 and they had to put those goals on hold. Mrs. Bush said she stepped up to the microphone that evening and soon after addressing the nation on behalf of her husband, she realized the power of her position.

"Right after the attacks of September 11th, I gave the presidential radio address to talk about women in Afghanistan, and right after that I was in a department store with my daughter, Jenna; she was a freshman in college and I was in Austin seeing her and we went to a department store and the women who sold cosmetics at the department store said, 'thank you so much Mrs. Bush, thank you for speaking for the women in Afghanistan.' And that was the first time it really occurred to me that people really did hear me and that I really did have that podium that Lady Bird Johnson knew about and had told us about," she said.

That podium, however, does not extend into their husband's office. Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Bush were quick to concur that their husbands, as presidents, have no need for any more political advisers.

"I found that my husband needs time to be off, and the only time is when he walks into the doors of the residence and we sit down and we have a family dinner," Mrs. Obama said.

While the first ladies agree that it's not their place to criticize their husband's job performance, all bets are off when it comes to their daughters.

"You know, the fortunate thing about having young children and girls is that truly, they could care less...there are times when Malia is like, so what about climate change? What about the tigers?" Mrs. Obama said.

In addition to support from one another, the first ladies of the world will also now have the Bush Institute's First Ladies Initiative to "connect to one another and develop private-public partnerships," according to the Bush Initiative's website.

"I want to encourage every first lady to speak out and speak up and let people know, because people are watching and they are listening and you can be so constructive for your country if you speak up about issues that you think are important," Mrs. Bush said.

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