During her husband’s first term in office, she spoke out about reading and women’s health. This time around, First Lady Laura Bush has launched an ambitious initiative to help boys likely to fall into lives of crime and poverty. “She recognizes she played a direct role in getting her husband reelected and now sees something she can do with her popularity,” says biographer Ann Gerhart. During a trip to New York City to promote another of her pet causes—The Heart Truth campaign’s Red Dress Project to raise awareness about heart disease—Bush, 58, stopped by PEOPLE to talk about favorite topics, from exercise to her taste for American couture. Here’s what she had to say.
THE TROUBLE WITH BOYS
I did an event in Philadelphia, a class at a Boys & Girls Club called Passport to Manhood. It was very interesting to see boys, probably age 8 to maybe 14 at the oldest, talk about respect and love and emotions that I think we deny our boys the opportunity to have a conversation about.
We have these stereotypes that we’ve allowed to last. We think boys can be self-reliant, that we can leave them home alone, that they don’t need the nurturing that girls need, that boys don’t cry—all stereotypes that we know intuitively are wrong. The other thing that’s alarming in the U.S. is how few men are involved in boys’ lives. But if boys have someplace to go after school, where there are constructive activities, they are much less likely to join a gang. Vandalism is less of a problem, crime rates are lower. And so one thing I can do is to shine the spotlight on programs around the United States that are really addressing these issues.
What advice do you have for parents?
I guess I would have to say read to your children. That’s what my mother did with me. That’s putting your arm around your child, preparing them to learn to read. I think dads might feel slightly uncomfortable and not realize they need to hold their boys, kiss their boys.
As the mother of two young women, do you see the same problems among their friends?
Not to a huge extent, because most of my girls’ friends have loving, stable relationships with their parents at home. But I don’t think the boys in those homes are afforded the chance to talk about emotions very much. I know from my husband that one of the big influences on him was a Bible study group that he got into in Midland. That group was really the first time, I think, that those men—West Texas boys turned into men—had a chance to have that sort of conversation with each other about emotions or about love.
Does he still have them?
He has a very close relationship with all of those men.
ON HEALTH AND EXERCISE
The thing about heart disease is that it can be preventable if you do all the things that all of us know—healthy diet, not smoking, exercising, going to your doctor to see what your risk factors are. But in the United States, only 3 percent of women do all of those things. Isn’t that amazing? I mean, when we look at all of our friends who go to the gym every day?
What motivated you to begin exercising?
[My husband] shamed me into exercise years ago. And then I shamed him into eating broccoli and vegetables. (Laughter) I’ve always worked out in different ways. Depending on what town I lived in, I’ve gone to gyms, I had a favorite aerobics teacher back when aerobics was the thing everyone did. I’ve never exercised like George, of course. He really is an extreme example of somebody who really is in great shape and works out a lot.
Do you exercise together?
Every once in a while we’ll go to the gym upstairs at the White House and lift weights a little bit at the same time, or I’ll get on the treadmill or something. We like to go for walks together. He thinks knees are like tires, and his are bald. (Laughter) So he works out on the elliptical or something that doesn’t put pressure on his knees.
ON SMOKING—AND QUITTING
I smoked. A lot of my friends smoked. George smoked. At times in my life, when I was younger, probably [a pack a day]. I quit when I started trying to get pregnant, and then of course I started smoking again—cheating a little bit after I had Barbara and Jenna. It’s hard to quit.
How did you do it?
Well, I think because my husband got elected [as governor of Texas]. I was ashamed—total shame and guilt. I just quit. [But] I have a lot of friends my age who smoke secretly. A lot. Mainly women.
Do you worry about your daughters?
Sure. That age has got the [anti-smoking] message a lot more than my generation, or certainly our parents’ generation. [But the appeal] is the same everywhere—to be cool.