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'I Didn't Realize the Impact the First Lady Can Have'

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There’s just one bit of her own White House decor that Laura Bush hopes Michelle Obama will keep. In an upstairs hallway is a settee that the First Lady had upholstered in a tiger-striped velvet more characteristic of Elvis Presley’s Jungle Room than a Republican First Family’s residence. Only weeks before moving trucks pull up to the South Lawn, the First Lady is in what she calls the Puzzle Room—once JFK’s bedroom—explaining, “I have very little attachment to anything remaining the same, but the tiger print is one of my favorites. My mother-in-law was shocked,” says Mrs. Bush, 62, with a playful grin. “You know how I love animal prints.”

Well, no, actually, we didn’t know. The side of Laura Bush that favors jungle prints, the side that gets a kick out of raising the older Mrs. Bush’s eyebrows—these are facets the public rarely, if ever, has witnessed. At the close of the George W. Bush years, barely 30 percent of Americans approve of the President’s performance. But a clear majority admire Mrs. Bush, even as she has steadfastly stood by her sometimes divisive and gaffe-prone husband. That fact, notes the Pew Research Center’s Michael Dimmock, “is testament to how much people like her.” But how well do they know her?

Behind her serene turquoise eyes, she remains such an enigma that this immensely private woman set off an eight-way bidding war when she promised publishers a candid account of her public life. Scribner nabbed the memoir (due out in 2010) with a seven-figure advance. “Don’t worry,” Mrs. Bush is quick to add, it’s not the $8 million Hillary Clinton got. “It will be cathartic to reflect on the last eight years,” she says of writing the book, to be penned with a collaborator. (Mrs. Bush was also the inspiration for a bestselling novel, Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, published last year, which friends say the First Lady has not read.) Alternately wonkish, wistful, girlish and guarded in four exit interviews with PEOPLE, she says she hopes to show people an intellectual side that often got drowned out by her husband’s headlines and by the media’s portrayal of her as a cookie-baking former librarian whose work on education policy was, as she puts it, “trivialized.” Not remotely amused, she says, “I haven’t baked any [cookies]. I haven’t cooked in 14 years.”

And yet Mrs. Bush strikes an unapologetically traditional tone when she says job No. 1 for her—and for all First Ladies—is to support the President: “My role is his wife.” That role included regular dinners à deux where, she says with a chuckle, they sometimes let fly “that kind of line we really wouldn’t ever tell anyone.”

Something else we may never hear? Points of disagreement. Mrs. Bush says she never doubted her husband’s decision to go to war in Iraq. And she demurs when asked for her take on his other positions, from stem cells to torture as an interrogation technique. Friends say Mrs. Bush does hold strong opinions. “But she and George have a lighthearted way of disagreeing,” says Regan Gammon, a lifelong friend. “They joke and laugh and tease.” Publicly, Mrs. Bush repeats the mantra that plunging public opinion of the Bush presidency doesn’t shake them. “Well, it bothers me,” she allows, “but we have a core that’s stronger than that.” And his critics? “Those people, they don’t know George.”

Nor can they know how it felt to be in her place. She remembers standing on the Truman Balcony Sept. 5, 2001, reveling in the fireworks display that punctuated her flawless first state dinner, for Mexico. Already, she was deeply involved in education projects and believed on that night that such issues close to home were “going to be a centerpiece of the Bush administration.” Just six days later the attacks of 9/11 upended that vision—and forced her to join her husband on a bigger world stage. Though she once made George vow that she would never have to give a speech as a political wife, Mrs. Bush took over the President’s weekly radio address to excoriate the Taliban for brutality against Afghan women and girls, and an accidental ambassador was born. She has since traveled to 76 countries to lobby on a variety of issues (see box). “Early on, I didn’t realize the impact the First Lady can have. It grew, because I became more expert in issues I never discussed before or thought about,” says Mrs. Bush, noting that a sixth-grade report she did on Afghanistan was about all she knew of that country before 2001.

If the stress and travel took a toll, Mrs. Bush found ways to escape. There’s an annual hiking trip (“Now, it’s sort of strolls”) with four girlfriends, some she’s known since second grade. At the White House, Mrs. Bush meets sister-in-law Margaret Bush at 7:30 each morning for yoga. “She does a perfect tree pose,” says Margaret. And if the tabloids take after her? “She’ll just roll her eyes and say, ‘I don’t understand how they get away with lies.'” She’s even learned to laugh at outlandish tabloid attacks on her marriage. After The Globe wrote that she was to get $15 million in a divorce settlement, Mrs. Bush joked to a friend, “You think that’s $15 million per year?”

But her biggest refuge is “just being with my husband and the girls,” she says of her 26-year-old twin daughters. Jenna is now a teacher at a public boarding school in Baltimore. Barbara, who often joined Mrs. Bush on foreign trips, recently gave up a New York City design museum job to develop a health corps deploying college grads to staff medical clinics around the world.

Having raised two girls in the Presidential mansion, Mrs. Bush says it was “really fun” showing the residence to Sasha and Malia Obama. Of Michelle Obama, she says, “She’ll be great. We all have a lot in common. I mean, the club of people who have lived in the White House is very small.”

She is happy to be nearing emeritus club status and excited about the $2-million-plus Dallas home where she and the President will live come Jan. 20. “He didn’t see the house,” she says. “I brought him pictures.” The only piece of furniture she’s taking is a chest of drawers that once belonged to the President’s grandmother. “I’m looking forward to living a private life, in our own house, with our own things.” And while she calls it “retirement,” she intends to remain involved—especially with Afghanistan and Burma. Asked about her legacy, Mrs. Bush answers, “I hope people will remember me for being an open and caring person but also for standing with women around the world on breast cancer, women’s rights, democracy building and on what every mother wants, which is a good education for her children.” She pauses, a flicker of wistfulness in those blue eyes. “Maybe if I have a regret, it’s just that I didn’t do more.”