First lady Michelle Obama, right, and former first lady Laura Bush participate in the African First Ladies Summit on July 2, 2013, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Legacy: Why Michelle Has a Leg Up on Laura

Regardless, it may (sadly) all come down to the clothes. 

First lady Michelle Obama, right, and former first lady Laura Bush participate in the African First Ladies Summit on July 2, 2013, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Laura Bush's legacy as first lady may be harder to pinpoint than Michelle Obama's. 

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When America thinks about Michelle Obama, they think about garden veggies and “mom dancing.” When America thinks about Laura Bush … well, that’s a little more unclear, according to Bush’s former chief of staff.

“I’m watching with great interest how Mrs. Obama has been very focused on the projects that she engages in – she will always be known for 'Let’s Move' and for childhood obesity,” Anita McBride explained during a first ladies talk at the National Press Club Wednesday. “Whereas Laura Bush was doing so many things, it’s harder to identify a single thing that she was involved in.”


Bush, for those who don’t recall, founded the National Book Festival, did work for the National Park Foundation and traveled abroad to talk about breast cancer and HIV/AIDs. She visited communities affected by Hurricane Katrina and did outreach after 9/11.

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“But when you do so many things, it’s harder for people to understand exactly where you have the greatest impact,” McBride said.

Looking back, one thing McBride said she personally would have done differently is permit more facetime between the first lady and reporters. At the very end of President George W. Bush's tenure in office, Laura Bush had lunch with the press corps in the White House residence. “Mrs. Bush invited members of the press, female members of the press, to a little presentation,” McBride recalled. “She answered their questions for two and a half hours and afterward I remember turning to our press secretary and [saying], ‘Why didn’t we do this before?’”


Then again, press access didn’t always help. McBride told of one particular trip to Saudi Arabia when Laura Bush was given, as a gift, a black headscarf decorated in pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness.

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“They covered the fact that she was given an abaya made by Saudi women,” McBride said. “That somehow she was showing a greater sensitivity to Muslims than she should be – that was really startling for us.” That particular coverage was spearheaded by a columnist from The Jerusalem Post, who called the gesture an “embrace of tyranny.”

Overall, McBride said there’s really only one hard and fast rule that seems to be applied to the legacy of American first ladies: "They’re always going to be remembered for what they wear.”
Which is why she’s very excited for the first first man.

“The Smithsonian … will hold the inauguration suit,” McBride said.