New exhibit at Bush Center examining role of first ladies

It’s said that behind a great man, you’ll find a great woman —  and nowhere is this point more proven than at a new exhibit, “First Ladies: Style of Influence,” at the Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University near Dallas. Former first lady Laura Bush gave Fox News a tour of the new exhibit, which had its birth in research done at the Bush Institute.

Both the research and exhibit look at the leadership styles and impact of first ladies.

“We wanted the whole show to be more than just the style of first ladies and the gowns they wore,” said Bush, who added, “Their policy influence is what’s really important.”

But the gowns are fascinating. Among the dresses in the exhibit are Bush’s own Bill Blass blue gown worn for a state dinner, a black velvet gown worn by Eleanor Roosevelt as she traveled the country in her husband’s stead, and a replica of the gown Dolley Madison may have made from red velvet curtains she saved from the White House when the British set fire to it.

The exhibit highlights how each first lady has her own leadership style. Natalie Gonnella-Platts, deputy director of the Women’s Initiative at the Bush Institute, described four broad categories, “Hostess, teammate, champion and policy advocate.” A first lady could be one, or all of these.

Although the Bush Institute report calls the first lady’s job a “Role without a Rulebook,” it’s certainly not without precedent and this exhibit shows each woman’s unique imprint on the job.

“Of course, there’s great comfort in studying the lives of the people who have come before us,” Bush told us, “and when you’re in the White House, you certainly think of all the people who have lived there before.” 

Bush said after the attacks on September 11, she and her husband thought in particular about the challenges the Lincolns had faced.

Of course, Bush had an advantage that no other first lady could claim. Because of her father-in-law President George H.W. Bush, she knew the White House before she ever lived there. 

FILE - In a Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 file photo, former first lady Barbara Bush listens to a patient's question during a visit to the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital at Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine. Bush spokesman Jim McGrath says the wife of former President George H.W. Bush was released from Houston Methodist Hospital late Saturday morning, Jan. 5, 2014. The 88-year-old Bush family matriarch had been hospitalized since Monday. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Former first lady Barbara Bush.  (AP Photo, File)

She also said mother-in-law and fellow former first lady Barbara Bush was a guide and inspiration. “I just watched her and learned things,” Bush said. “She was so natural in her role.”

Photographs of Barbara Bush are in the center gallery, along with the outfit she wore on the cover of “Millie’s Book,” the book that imagines the thoughts of the Bush’s White House dog Millie.

The histories are fun at times — and at times, they are serious. Mementos fill cases throughout. But the exhibit is more about the ideas of the women behind them. “Really what was most important to me,” said Bush of her time in the White House, “was what I worked on while I was there.” Issues like literacy and helping women in Afghanistan — issues she still works on today.

While Bush found a cause in helping women and children, others championed causes elsewhere, like Lady Bird Johnson, in beautifying the nation’s highways, or Betty Ford, known for her strength in overcoming addiction and helping others to do the same.

Bush says it is those legacies that are what the exhibit is all about: “I think it shows how first ladies have made such an impact in our country, not just the president, but the women that have been with the presidents have also made a real contribution to our country.”

The exhibit remains open through this fall.