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First Ladies Can Bring Their Passions to the Role

5 July 2013

Being married to the president of the United States is among "the best jobs in the world," according to first lady Michelle Obama. "We get to work on what we're passionate about," she said July 2 while speaking at the African First Ladies Summit in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Laura Bush affirmed Obama's view of her role. Bush lived in the White House from 2001 to 2009 with President George W. Bush and was Obama's immediate predecessor in the post. She hosted the Tanzania summit, bringing together women from across Africa for a session sponsored by the Bush Institute, a principal activity of the former president.

"I want to encourage every first lady to speak out and speak up," Mrs. Bush said in an onstage discussion with Mrs. Obama. "You can be so constructive for your country if you speak up about issues that you think are important."

U.S. first ladies can choose their issues, except when fate thrusts a national crisis upon them. That's what happened to the Bush administration, not one full year in office, when the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred. They launched the nation into an unanticipated global war on terrorism and, Bush said, upended the agenda the former president had planned when he took office.

In the swirl of international events that followed, Mrs. Bush became a champion for Afghan women, promoting their need for opportunities and education.

Neither U.S. law nor the constitution specifies any formal responsibilities for the spouse of a president. Through the 20th century, though, first ladies took on issues they found compelling, developing a tradition with White House support.

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the Depression-era and World War II President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a groundbreaking first lady. She used the office as a platform to advocate greater rights for women, workers and racial minorities. She maintained a position in public life after her time in the White House and the death of her husband, playing a key role in the adoption of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Her successors have each brought their own personalities and causes to the office. "Lady Bird" Johnson, first lady from 1963 to 1969, was a powerful advocate for beautification of the nation's highways and cities and played an active role in lobbying Congress to pass a law serving that end.

Nancy Reagan, in the White House from 1981 to 1989, came to Washington amidst a growing national drug problem. She tackled the issue, leading the "Just Say No" campaign to encourage young people to resist the urge to try illicit substances.

Obama has been at the forefront of a national fitness and nutrition campaign, targeting obesity among youth, but encouraging entire families to adopt better health habits. She said the job has given her an unusual opportunity to "be very strategic about the issues you care most about; and I just found it a very freeing and liberating opportunity."

Bush and Obama agreed that the time in the White House slips by, especially when you're trying to address serious social problems. They advised their African counterparts to work for achieving what they can, recognizing that they'll pass their work on to successors.

"We'll never finish with education," Bush said, citing an issue of interest to her that no one person can "fix" for the long term. "We'll never get to rub our hands together and say, 'Oh, we took care of that.'"

A trained librarian before politics became the family business, Bush launched the National Book Festival, which lasted beyond her White House years. The Library of Congress now sponsors the annual event.

While their husbands may have tangled in presidential politics, the two women shared a warm rapport and understanding about life lived in a glaring public spotlight. Both described the role as an utterly life-changing one, for which they weren't prepared.

Obama credited Bush and her former staff for graceful advice she offered the Obamas in the early months. "Having your predecessors be people who are willing to extend themselves on behalf of the country, to help with that transition, makes the world of difference," Obama said. She called it a lesson for any leader and spouse to learn about the transfer of power anywhere.

The Bush Institute hosted the summit for African first ladies on the theme "Investing in Women: Strengthening Africa." A White House official described the event as a forum to lift the role of the continent's women. Mrs. Bush said the institute plans to make the summit an annual event about the role first ladies can play "in addressing pressing issues in their countries."

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