In Africa, First Ladies Find Common Ground

In Africa, First Ladies Find Common Ground

By Alexis Simendinger - July 3, 2013

They described White House life as a bit of a hothouse, but Michelle Obama and Laura Bush, appearing together a world away from Washington, sounded light on their feet Tuesday during warm banter about deploying the power of first spouse.

Paired at an event in Tanzania for Africa’s first ladies, the two women told their listeners to recognize the power they possess to tug public attention toward causes that need champions.

“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,” Mrs. Bush said. “You can be so constructive for your country if you speak up about issues that you think are important.”

And don’t waste a minute, Mrs. Obama advised. “Four to eight years is really a blink of an eye,” she said. “You often find that you’re just starting to get your teeth into your issues and then it’s time to go.”

The American first ladies spoke during a summit aimed at their African counterparts and convened in Dar es Salaam by the George W. Bush Institute, a public policy center focused on expanding opportunities for people throughout the world. Laura Bush traveled to Tanzania for the two-day event, which showcased programs supported by her husband during his presidency, while Michelle Obama accepted an invitation to join the panel before embarking on a week-long trip to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania with her husband.

With journalist Cokie Roberts moderating, they shared asides about being mothers (and in Mrs. Bush’s case, a new grandmother), their eagerness to promote the value of education for children everywhere, and about the peculiar nature of life as a spouse at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

“There are prison elements to it,” joked Mrs. Obama. “But it’s a really nice prison.”

“But with a chef,” interjected Laura Bush.

“You can’t complain, but there [are] definitely elements that are confining,” the current first lady continued. “So while people are … sorting through our shoes and our hair, whether we cut it or not -- ”

“Whether we have bangs,” her predecessor interjected again.

“Whether we have bangs!” Michelle Obama echoed, as the audience laughed. “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.”

“We hope,” Laura Bush added.

“They do, and that’s the power of our roles,” the first lady said.

Responding to a question, Mrs. Bush revisited an observation she’s voiced for years (including in an interview with this reporter several years ago) that the media and culture oversimplify first ladies, in part through a gender fixation that deals with appearance.

“In the United States, it has a lot to do with the way you look. That’s a lot of the discussion about women,” she said. “That’s a problem everywhere in the United States, for girls, as well. … They should worry 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. …When you read in the press -- I mean, it’s like talking about the bangs, or somebody writing about them.”

Whether as first ladies or in any other role around the globe, women recognize that other women are “not that complicated, but we are complex,” Mrs. Obama said. “We are deep, diverse, enlightened people in the universe. And the world will be better off when our voices are at the table.”

The conversation brought to mind Hillary Clinton, who as first lady championed children, health care, education, and micro-lending to female entrepreneurs in Africa, and inspired endless conversations about hair styles. But the ex-senator and former secretary of state, who may or may not seek the presidency again, was absent from Tanzania, although Mrs. Bush mentioned she’d had to field will-you-be-like-Hillary-Clinton questions from reporters when she first arrived in the White House.

“I always just said, 'Well, I think I’ll be Laura Bush. I do Laura Bush pretty well, having grown up as her,’ ” she deadpanned.

The duo -- of different generations, races and political stripes -- lauded the many unexpected openings afforded them by their famous husbands to push public policy ideas they believe are important.

“Every issue comes to the desk of the president of the United States,” Mrs. Bush said. “First ladies have it a little bit easier because we can choose specific issues to focus on.”

And improving education in America is a never-ending project, passed from one first lady to the next, she added: “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.”

Michelle Obama, agreed, saying she got to serve as America’s first lady “because of education.” And her effort in the White House on behalf of children’s health, nutrition and exercise as well military families is “a forever proposition,” she added.

The bonhomie between the American first ladies contrasted with a brief and formal appearance in Tanzania between their husbands during a wreath-laying ceremony at the U.S. Embassy. Standing on the grass side by side, the two men, heads bent, observed a moment of silence to honor victims of a terrorist bombing there in 1998. It was originally planned as a solo event on Obama’s schedule before his return to Washington, but on Monday, the White House said he and Bush would see one another.

“They’re learning from us as women,” Michelle Obama said.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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