America’s First Ladies

America’s First Ladies, #43: Laura Welch Bush

America’s First Ladies, #43: Laura Welch Bush

Our forty-third First Lady was born Laura Lane Welch in Midland, Texas on November 4, 1946. An only child, her father was named Harold Welch and was a builder and real estate developer, while her mother was named Jenna Louise Hawkins, and worked as a bookkeeper for Harold. Laura’s parents encouraged her from an early age to learn to read, and this began her lifelong passion for it. The Little House on the Prairie series and the Little Women books were among her favorites.

Two days after turning 17 years old, Laura was driving her car and ran a stop sign, striking another car and killing its driver. The driver was a close friend and classmate of hers named Michael Dutton Douglas. Michael had at one time been her boyfriend, but they were not dating, but were simply close friends, at the time of the accident. Laura and her passenger, who was the same age as her, were treated for minor injuries and recovered. Laura was not charged in the incident, but she said it made her lose her faith for a long time.

When she graduated high school in 1964, Laura attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where she joined the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. She graduated from there four years later with a Bachelor of Science degree in Education.

After graduating college, she began teaching at Longfellow Elementary School in Dallas, then at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Houston. She worked on a Master of Science in Library Science from the University of Texas at Austin, which she received in 1973. After receiving this degree, she got a job as a librarian at Kashmere Gardens Branch, Houston Public Library. She moved back to Austin the next year and began working as a librarian at Dawson Elementary School.

Laura met her future husband, George W. Bush, in July of 1977, when some mutual friends of theirs, Joe and Jan O’Neill, invited them both to a backyard barbecue at their house. George was smitten, so much that he proposed to Laura in September of that year. They were married in November of that year, only four months after they met. They went to Cozumel in Mexico for their honeymoon. Laura was happy to be a part of such a big family as the Bush family, after having grown up as an only child.

A year after they got married, George began campaigning for a Congressional seat. When Laura agreed to marry him, it was on the condition that she would not have to make any campaign speeches. However, she relented and gave a speech for him in 1978 during this campaign. George won the primary but lost the general election. It was just the beginning of his political career. Laura credited her father-in-law’s position as Ronald Reagan’s Vice-President, and then as President himself, as giving George enough national exposure to win subsequent elections, and to eventually become US President, like his father before him.

George and Laura wanted children but had trouble conceiving at first. It took them three years of marriage before they conceived their twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara (each named for one of their grandmothers). The twins had to be delivered five weeks early via an emergency C-section because Laura had developed pre-eclampsia. Laura is, so far, the only First Lady to have given birth to twins.

George had a drinking problem early in his marriage to Laura, and he credits her with his decision to stop. She knew he was drinking too much, and told him her father had been an alcoholic, and that it was something she did not want to repeat in her own family as a grown up. George has also credited her with giving him a stabilized home life, and for civilizing him.

When George wanted to campaign for US President, Laura agreed to it. However, she did tell him that she never imagined he would run for that office. During the campaign, their staffers worked hard to assure Republican and swing voters that Laura would not be like her predecessor, Hillary Clinton. When she would be asked in interviews which First Lady she wished to emulate, Laura always said she wished to be herself. She gave a keynote speech at the Republican National Convention during the campaign, which gave her national attention. When she became First Lady, people already knew of her because of her noticeable presence during the campaign.

When she was First Lady, Laura involved herself in issues and causes of importance to women and children, especially in the areas of health and education.

A few days before the presidential election of 2008, when George was not eligible to run again, Laura hosted a three-hour meeting with her staff members and historians to discuss her legacy as First Lady. This was the first time a First Lady had ever reached out to historians to discuss her place in the national history. Laura wanted to change the general perception that she was a traditional, uninvolved First Lady, who always deferred to her husband. She believed herself to be non-traditional, as she focused on her efforts on causes and issues that were not customary.

A 2014 poll that asked the respondent to name who they thought was the most popular First Lady of the past quarter century had Laura ranking in fourth place (with only four candidates), behind, in order, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush, and Michelle Obama.

Laura has continued to be a devoted wife, mother, and grandmother in her post-White House career. While she has not been as visible on the national arena as other former First Ladies, she has not been idle. Much of her work in social issues has been behind the scenes, and she spends more time with her family at their home, enjoying her time as a private citizen, than other more recent First Ladies have done. Laura continues to be known for her gentleness and grace.