Meeting Barbara Bush

(version of this article was printed in the Lexington Herald Leader on April 20, 2018)


“Mrs. Bush will wear a turquoise day dress and pearls. Men should wear suits.”


             In 1992 I went to work at Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. The newly renovated building was to open in early September. My first assignment was to coordinate the visit of guest of honor, First Lady Barbara Bush.

            The level of detail required for such an event surpassed anything I’d ever experienced. For several weeks, phone calls from Washington occurred regularly. With e-mail still nascent, the telephone and FAX machine were the favored technologies for long-distance planning. On more than one occasion as I sat in a meeting, a staff person would pop her head in the door and say, “Jan, the White House is on Line 1.” I would push back from the table and remind myself to walk, not sprint, to the nearest phone.

            As that September Friday approached, planning for Mrs. Bush’s arrival intensified. On Labor Day weekend as we unpacked boxes of books, the Secret Service tapped on the back windows of the Carnegie Center and asked permission to begin canvassing the building. I had not known that the Secret Service had a presence in our city, but they did. The badges sealed the deal, but the closely tailored suits, the ties, and the mirrored sunglasses were adequate identifiers.

            Then a larger advance team arrived with more closely tailored suits and mirrored sunglasses. I learned that a member of the Secret Service would stand at my upstairs window, which afforded a view of the front portico where the program would take place, as well as the lawn where folding chairs would hold the citizenry.

We learned how the photo opportunity would be organized. The Center’s founding director, Laurie Bottoms, ordered a tea service for Mrs. Bush to be available in my office. Each staff member was assigned a different part of the Carnegie Center’s program to describe.

The day of the opening ceremony was cloudless, early autumn perfection. The motorcade arrived in the circular driveway behind the building, and while a crowd took its seats on the lawn, the staff took Barbara Bush on a tour and tried to articulate what were then just our dreams for the programs to take place between those walls.

I was overwrought by that morning, but a few memories stand out: Mrs. Bush sitting erectly at one of our circular tables, her attention fixed hawk-like as each staff member spoke. Mrs. Bush passing through my office, but because of scheduling needs, politely declining tea. Mrs. Bush sitting before the laser disc player, a shiny bit of technology we were ridiculously proud to own, although we had no idea if it would prove to be a useful tool in the pursuit of literacy. The equipment froze, with an illustration of a woman’s reproductive system pinned to the screen. Mrs. Bush did not so much as roll an eye. Mrs. Bush in the endless line of local poobahs who came to have their pictures taken, shaking hands, a cordial greeting for each.

Too quickly we were moving though the Carnegie Center’s red doors and onto the portico. By the time Mrs. Bush took the podium to speak beneath a fifteen-foot American flag, I was too tired to do anything but weep quietly in my chair.

Soon enough all was over and the motorcade whisked Mrs. Bush to Louisville where she had a second literacy stop to make, a second set of programs seeking her attention, a second set of photographs to pose for. We had our own new program to launch and our real work began the next Monday.

It was a presidential election year. That fall as I faced classes that met at the same circular table where Mrs. Bush had sat, I thought seriously about my vote. I had been voting for Democrats for President for twenty years. But I had met a First Lady, first hand, and had come away in awe of her efforts, her close attention and patience, her seriousness that honored the work we hoped to do. While I quibbled with most of her husband’s policies, I was smitten with Mrs. Bush. She was my First Lady.

Sure it was an election year. Of course she had close friends in town, with whom she shared a visit. Nonetheless, she met a grueling schedule with the unwavering energy of a woman determined to be respectful and to represent.

A couple of weeks afterward, I received a thank-you note from Mrs. Bush, sent to my home address. However did she know? However did she find the time and energy? Of course, the note could have been the work of competent staff, but wouldn’t she have been the one who created that culture of service and appreciation?

I framed my picture from the photo op and gave it to my parents for Christmas. They loved that picture and loved showing it off to friends.

Once you’ve met a First Lady you are likely to consider yourself a bit of an expert. Subsequently, I watched Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama with new eyes, appreciating their energy for contact with people, their efforts on behalf of their particular passions.

I appreciated the tremendous sacrifice of time and personal advancement that each made as she helped a spouse extend his contact with the American people. Running the White House was a partnership. I saw that. When I became director of the Carnegie Center five years later, I needed all the help I could get. I am proud to say that every support I had ever given my husband in his job was returned to me twofold.

It’s really a question of respect, isn’t it? I’m grateful to Barbara Bush for making me aware of how a presidency—not to mention a marriage—might work.

And that briefing memo that described Mrs. Bush’s attire for the day? It was meant to put the hosts at ease—not to wow us with Mrs. Bush’s fashion savvy—but to help us know how to dress, so that we all blended together as a room full of ordinary Americans.

                                                        Jan Isenhour is the retired executive director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning