Enough With the Clothes Already!

Laura Bush's former chief of staff tells about the real substance and detailed planning that supports a first lady on these trips—and how she believes Michelle fared. By Anita McBride.

Laura Bush's former chief of staff tells about the real substance and detailed planning that supports a first lady on these trips—and how she believes Michelle fared.

Enough with the clothes already. There’s a lot more to a first lady’s overseas travel than the wardrobe.

I’ve followed the President and Mrs. Obama’s first foreign trip with great interest and a little nostalgia. It takes a lot to make these trips happen, and one thing I know for sure is that the president has a lot more people helping him plan for his trip than the first lady has for hers.

Does a lot of planning go into what goes in her suitcase? You bet it does. A wardrobe memo is important. And God forbid we forget our version of the nuclear “football”—the makeup case.

Summit schedules can be grueling for the president. The “bi-lats” are also a must—especially when a new president is on his first foreign trip, meeting many leaders for the first time. He is the leader of the free world and in high demand.

It matters a great deal for the American president to be at these summits and it always will. They are not successful without him. And when the first lady accompanies him to share in the joint events, it’s even better.

Hundreds of staff will help prepare the president for his trip. He will have everything he needs.

Now comes the hard part for the first lady and her small staff. They can’t plan her schedule until his is locked down. How many obligatory joint social events? How much time is available “to assume a separate schedule”? How can she complement the trip mission and do independent events based on her interests such as school visits, roundtables with women leaders, media interviews, and cultural events? Does the foreign host or hostess have any particular request?

Working with the National Security Council and the embassies abroad, the first lady’s staff develops proposals that support diplomatic efforts, fit her interests and experience, and show respect to the foreign hosts. The first lady always makes the final decisions.

The first lady has a powerful platform and enormous clout both at home and abroad. Everyone will watch what she does and what she says, and her foreign counterparts will want to get to know her. The first lady will want to develop relationships and friendships with them, too, as there will be many future encounters over the next four years. They may want to work on a project together and support each others’ interests. Here’s the great thing about being first lady—every problem comes to the leader’s desk, but the first lady has the luxury to pick and choose how to deploy her influence.

I smiled when I heard Mrs. Obama tell the students at that London school that the president would be jealous when he found out what she was up to that day. His day is spent in meeting after meeting while she is surrounded by those beautiful girls getting hugs. Mrs. Obama said the girls touched her heart, but I know she touched theirs too, and left them with memories that will last a lifetime.

I remember those same wonderful experiences with Mrs. Bush in my travels with her to 67 countries over four years. And I knew we were doing something right in the East Wing when one of my West Wing colleagues said that “we need the president’s trips to look more like Mrs. Bush’s.”

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I also liked seeing Mrs. Obama visit the cancer hospital to show support for women getting treatment. It meant a lot for those patients to have the first lady hold their hand and give them encouragement. I remember moments like that with Mrs. Bush all over the world.

These are acts of compassion, and it makes all Americans proud when our first lady is gracious and warmly embraced while representing us abroad.

Does a lot of planning go into what goes in her suitcase? You bet it does. A wardrobe memo is important. It includes recommendations for cocktail suits for social events, business suits for independent events and meetings, flat shoes for when you are walking the cobblestone streets of Europe on the spouses’ tours. And God forbid we forget our version of the nuclear “football”—the makeup case.

We want our first lady to look sophisticated and elegant. But I hope our appreciation for our first lady goes beyond her clothes. I’m pretty sure Michelle Obama would like to be remembered more for her substantive contributions than for which designer she wore to meet the Queen of England.

Mrs. Obama made a lovely first impression and she rightly should be the center of attention. She is the new American first lady—she’s smart and attractive. But it is not fair to compare her to any first lady that came before her. Each one has left their own mark, and Michelle Obama will leave hers.

One of the most professionally rewarding experiences I had as chief of staff to Laura Bush was sitting down with the soon-to-be chief of staff to Michelle Obama. “Get the National Security Adviser to assign a member of his staff to you,” I said in one of our transition meetings. “And ask that you attend his senior directors’ meetings. You need the NSC’s help when planning foreign trips abroad and you’ll do yourself a big favor and a better job for Mrs. Obama if you have that relationship from the start.”

As Laura Bush took on a greater global platform in the second term, that structure and the flow of information that resulted was invaluable to the work we accomplished together. She, too, left a lasting impression on the people she met, and touched the hearts of thousands around the world. She made important contributions to global literacy and health efforts and women’s rights. What Mrs. Bush misses most is representing the American people and showing the world our compassionate and generous spirit.

When asked, in 2001, which first lady she would be more like—Hillary Clinton or Barbara Bush—she simply replied, “I’ll be Laura Bush.” And the world loved her, too.

Michele Obama is now privileged to have temporary custodianship of this most unique and influential role. She will define it in a way that fits her style and interests. From my unique perspective, Mrs. Obama has hit the ground running at home and abroad. I am glad she is as comfortable meeting the Queen of England as she is in a room full of high-school girls.

I wish the first lady well and I, for one, am watching her closely—and not just her wardrobe.

Anita McBride served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and served as chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush from 2005 to 2009.