Roots Tech: Laura Bush and Jenna Hager Bush


On Friday I attended former First Lady Laura Bush’s keynote address at the Roots Tech conference in Salt Lake City, billed as the world’s largest family history conference. Her daughter, Jenna Bush Hager joined her later for a question-and-answer session.

Bush showed warmth and wit as she shared stories of her family’s life during and after the White House.

“We are back in Texas living what I call The Afterlife, in a state George calls the Promised Land,” she joked to the crowd of what was probably more than 10,000 professional and amateur genealogists gathered at the Salt Palace convention center.

Her takeaway advice: “All we know we have is now, so take advantage of your life as it is, and really savor those moments.”

Until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard of RootsTech, which is hosted by FamilySearch, the genealogy arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Family history buffs from all 50 states and 35 different countries were registered for the hundreds of workshops, seminars, exhibits and other events.

It underscores the idea that the search for ancestors has gone from grandma’s dusty file cabinet to a big business with high-tech software, websites and sophisticated search engines. Family search companies such as Find My Past, Ancestry, and My Heritage were conference sponsors. As Joshua Taylor, director of Find My Past said, “This is not your grandmother’s hobby anymore, this is everyone’s hobby. It is inspiring.”

Bush’s focus was on family members who are alive, not ancestors long-dead. But she did mention that when she and hubby President George W. visited Utah during the Olympics, LDS Church president Gordon B. Hinckley presented them with a genealogy report on their family, which they treasure.

Some quotes from her speech:

–“When you are married to the President of the United States, you don’t worry too much about him leaving his wet towels on the floor. “But in Dallas, things are different.”

She added that nowadays, world turmoil is “no excuse not to pick up your dirty socks.”

— At the beginning of her husband’s administration, the media often asked her which former First Lady she wanted to be — “Hilary Clinton or Barbara Bush.”

“I just wanted to be Laura Bush, because I know Laura Bush pretty well, having grown up with her in Midland, Texas.”

— She showed off a Laura Bush bobble head doll. “I got it from a friend who found it in the clearance shelf after Obama won the election.”

—  As her son George W. entered politics, motgher-in-law Barbara Bush counseled Laura not to criticize his speeches. Barbara said after she criticized one of George H.W.’s speeches, he came back with letter after letter saying it was the best speech he’d ever given.

But one night when driving home from a political speech, George W. asked Laura for the truth. “And I said, ‘It wasn’t really that great,’ and then he drove into the garage wall.’ ”

— While living in the White House, she thought about the past presidents who have occupied it. “You have the feeling that they were mostly decent men who tried to do the best they could wit the breathtaking responsibility entrusted in them.”

— She talked about how the terrorist attacks of 9/11 completely changed the focus of the Bush administration, and how difficult it was to see her grave-faced husband forced to make difficult decisions.

Jenna Bush Hager, now a correspondent for NBC’s “Today Show”  threw her mom such obvious questions as “”So what is it like being a grandmother to the best grandbaby in America?” (She was referring to her own two-year-old daughter, Mila.)

— She said she is often asked how the family was able to handle the constant flood of criticism during the Bush administration. She said that in America, what some people see the chorus of complaints is actually the sacred music — or the clanking gears —  of democracy at work.

“As George says, ‘We are the big ship America. We may lean to the left or the right, but we stay on course.’ ”

During the Bush administration, Jenna and her twin sister Barbara had a reputation for rebellious antics, including arrests on alcohol-related charges. But at 33, it appears they have grown into impressive adults. Barbara graduated from Yale, and founded a nonprofit focused on public health, called Global Health Corps, to help provide health care to improverished countries. Jenna graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, and was a school teacher before her TV gigs.

Jenna said because her parents included them in White House events and foreign policy trips, it influenced their career choices. She recalled meeting a 7-year-old girl in Africa with AIDS. The girl’s mother told her the girl would die, but her younger brother and sister would be able to live because of the medicine being sent from America.  Her mother also took her to visit the Austin Children’s Shelter, and Jenna began volunteering there every Sunday afternoon. But, Laura Bush wisely let it be Jenna’s idea.

“Had she told me ‘you need to work here,’ I would have rebelled,” Bush said, slyly adding, “That’s hard to believe based on my other behaviors.”

Laura Bush holds a master’s degree in library science, and it’s no secret that reading and literacy are close to her heart. She said that books, such as  “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee have had a great influence on society.

She credited her own mother for fostering a love of reading, and literacy is an issue that she remains passionate about. She also spoke lovingly of her grandmother  who sewed clothes for Laura and her dolls.

Hager said she recently took Mila to visit her great-grandmother. “She really enjoyed the food at the old folks home, it’s really good food for a toddler, the Jell-O and the cottage cheese,” she joked.

One story they told was how “Gampy” (former President George H.W. Bush) ended up babysitting the six-year-old twins the night before one of his Presidential debates. When young Barbara lost her cat Spikey, the elder Bush dropped everything and led Secret Service agents around the grounds with flashlights looking for it.

Jenna said her Grandma Barbara Bush was called “The Enforcer,” in the family. “When she speaks, we have no choice but to listen.”

Bush recalled the night of her husband’s first inauguration, and the peace she felt knowing that all 27 members of their extended family were there in the White House with them.

“How often does it happen that everyone you love is safe, tucked into bed and all accounted for?” she said.

That peaceful feeling was shattered all across America with the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

“We woke up on Sept. 12 to a different life,” she said.

Since leaving office, husband George W. Bush has taken up painting, and has done portraits of the world leaders he served with over the years. He has also written a book, “41: A Portrait of My Father,” about former President George H.W. Bush.

“It’s a lovely tribute to a great man — it’s really a love story,” Laura Bush said.

George & Laura Bush have also founded a conservation group called Taking Care of Texas. In keeping with the group’s ideals, the Bush Presidential Library was landscaped totally with plants and trees native to Texas.