On February 20th American University’s Alumni Association, in their spring series on American women, hosted an intimate sit down discussion with Anita McBride, the former Chief of Staff to Former First Lady Laura Bush. Currently, McBride is the Executive in Residence at AU’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies in the School of Public Affairs. The event, American Women with Anita McBride: The Legacies of America’s First Ladies, was moderated by AU Journalism professor, Iris Kransow. Introducing McBride was AUs First Lady, Ann Kerwin.
Having a career that spans two decades in the public sector, Anita McBride finds great joy in working in public service. Having come from humble beginnings, McBride talked about growing up without a mother, who died when she was just three years old. Both her parents were Italian immigrants who moved to the United States when they were young; her father did not have a formal education past the third grade. Her family history, like so many other Americans whose parents or grandparents immigrated to the U.S. in search for a better life, instilled in McBride a sense of patriotism.
But it was not until her study abroad years at the University of Connecticut, by way of the University of Florence in 1979 that she found her strong interest in politics. Upon commencement of her undergraduate career, McBride hoped to be a geriatric doctor. However she soon realized that university level biology did not agree with her, and McBride decided to change directions to focus on her academic strengths--foreign romance languages, which awakened her love of cultures. It was during her time in Florence, Italy that U.S. hostages were taken captive in Iran. After seeing the Communist Italian Red Brigades and foreign students celebrate the captivity of the hostages by protesting and burning the American flag, McBride recalled, “Something inside of me snapped, because I was raised to be patriotic. Getting involved in politics for me happened because of an extraordinary moment that sparked an event in history.”
From then on, McBride knew she had outgrown the small town of Storrs, Connecticut. She completed her senior year, but also went to volunteer on Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign in Connecticut. She then went on to enroll in the Washington Semester Program through American University in DC, doing an internship in foreign policy. Since then McBride has worked at the U.S. Department of State and in three Presidential Administrations: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.
At the end of her time as Laura Bush’s Chief of Staff in 2009, McBride was approached by American University to join their Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies in the School of Public Affairs. Focusing on the impact of American First Ladies, McBride launched an initiative: The Legacies of America’s First Ladies. The initiative was launched with a conference in 2011 during Women’s History Month in partnership with AU and the White House Historical Association.
In an hour-long discussion with Iris Kransow, Anita McBride spoke about the role of the American First Lady and what that entails. Here is an excerpt from their conversation.
[Iris Kransow:] Is there a unifying characteristic of being First Lady? What is their power?
[Anita McBride:] First Ladies are dedicated to the successes of their husbands. Every problem comes to the desk of their husbands, and they take the criticisms and successes of their husbands to heart. There have been 45 First Ladies in our nation’s history, and a few of them fainted when they heard their husbands were going to run. They also realized that they have a platform. First Ladies have a complicated position and can make it into what they want it to be; but you have to remember--they can be an advocate for policy but not a policy maker. Hillary Clinton got flack for being a policy maker, but what she was doing was gathering information for President Clinton to carry out the policy. Mrs. Bush became a voice for PEPFAR--President Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief--and an advocate for this policy.
[IK:] What is it with the Michelle Obama magic? Michellemania, which is pervasive?
[A McB:] Michelle Obama is a historic First Lady. She’s the first African American First Lady, and a groundbreaking First Lady in what she represents. In the beginning, she was a reluctant warrior. She never really liked politics and stayed away from DC when her husband was a Senator, as she considered Washington Barack’s world. There were a few missteps for her in the 2008 campaign, but over the years she has embraced her role. She was even reluctant to move to DC even when President Obama was elected. She was going to stay in Chicago, and contemplated not moving to Washington until June 2009 when her girls finished school. She felt the pressure to define what an African American First Lady should look like with concerted efforts through fashion. After becoming First Lady in 2009, Michelle Obama, gave interviews to various fashion magazines as a part of this concerted effort, to help define her image.
[IK:] What would surprise us about Laura Bush?
[A McB:] Her incredible sense of humor! She is absolute fun to be around. She has a calm demeanor and she does not pretend to be someone she’s not. Of all of the people that I’ve been around, I deeply admire her. She is calm in all situations, no matter what it is.
In planning and organizing her first State Dinner, for the President of Mexico Vicente Fox, Mrs. Bush could not decide what to wear. President Bush suggested that she wear black and Mrs. Bush showed up wearing a bright orange dress. That moment and that dress was her opportunity to define herself as a confident First Lady.
[IK:] What is the daily planning like in the White House?
[A McB:] You have to have the stamina for it and you have to be flexible. It’s a constant pivot, as you’re moving from one issue moment to moment. In one moment I was planning trip to Afghanistan for Mrs. Bush and another moment I was helping to organize a State Dinner for the Queen. In the White House there are lots of opportunities to make a mistake and no one wants to do that, as it usually becomes front page news.
[IK:] What was the day like when you got the phone call that you were chosen to be Mrs. Bush’s Chief of Staff?
[A McB:] The day I received the call I was driving a carpool. My son was in the first grade and my daughter was in preschool. I had settled into a comfortable life balancing work and family. Before, I had worked at the State Department and then my husband, who I met at the White House under President George H.W. Bush’s Administration, had gotten a job transfer to Daimler Chrysler in Germany for one year. It was a wonderful family year with lots of travel. We had returned to Washington, and I had returned to the State Department and taken on part time work. I was driving when the White House telephone operator called me and said that Mrs. Bush’s office was on the other line. I was told that I was being considered to be the Chief of Staff to the First Lady because the current Chief of Staff was going to return to Texas, a decision she had made should President Bush win a second term.
I met Mrs. Bush the week after the call in the White House residence for two hours and she laid out her plan for the second four years. She said that she wanted to go to Afghanistan, and I knew how I could make that happen. After meeting with her, I realized that it wasn’t just a job planning parties in the Rose Garden. It would be much more than that. It would be helping the First Lady build a strong global platform.
I really had to think about this opportunity. I knew the demands, and knew it would be long hours away from my family. My mother died when I was three and I wanted to be there for my young children. But I had a great support system. My husband said, 'The kids and I will be ok, and we will lead our lives, and you can just float in and out when you can.' He understood what it was like to be a White House staffer. During my time as Chief of Staff, I didn’t take vacations with my family. Days went by without me seeing my kids--and that was the hard part. But thanks to a great husband and wonderful nannies, I was able to manage my job.
McBride then took questions from the audience.
[Audience:] We know about the modern First Ladies. Who are some other First Ladies that shaped the role?
[A McB:] Throughout our history, First Ladies have helped shaped our country’s societal attitudes. They have often been a bell-weather of changes to come. Dolley Madison was a great social hostess and used her time to build political and diplomatic relationships for her husband. She grew up in a boarding house and ran one. She learned great social skills from having done that. She became consumed in showing the U.S. as a new country--a showcase of American products to foreign diplomats, as the U.S. was a country in name only during that time.
According to one of the historians in our First Ladies Conference series, Sally Field nailed her role when she portrayed Mary Todd Lincoln in the film Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln was perceived as poor and without social skills, and the DC elite didn’t think that he was up to being the man to compete on the world stage. Mary Todd Lincoln’s controversial spending habits were aimed at showing her husband as worthy of being President of the United States, and she wanted him to succeed. She was a tortured figure who suffered great challenges and losses, but she was devoted to the country and has her own place in history as a leading figure during the Civil War.
[Audience:] What are some key factors to keep in mind about the role, when and if a man assumes it?
[A McB:] The White House is a resilient place and can handle the change of a First Gentleman, like Germany had done with Angela Merkel’s husband, Joachim Sauer. How will he be presented if he is a working spouse has to be decided, as First Ladies give up their jobs to fulfill the demanding role of being First Lady. Will First Gentleman embrace their social role, or will the Department of State or other White House staffers take on that duty? We will have to see.
In April, the First Lady’s Conference will find itself on the road, heading to Grand Rapids, Michigan to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library. Anita McBride is in talks with the William Jefferson Clinton Library in Arkansas, the John F. Kennedy Library in Massachusetts, and the Reagan Library in California.
White House photo by Joyce N. Boghosian.