Video: Laura Bush: President's advocate

updated 3/31/2004 7:25:02 PM ET 2004-04-01T00:25:02

Below is a transcript of NBC’s David Gregory’s interview with First Lady Laura Bush.  The transcript has been edited to remove inaudible and incomplete questions and responses.

David Gregory: I do want to start off by asking you a couple of questions about the Richard Clarke book and the reverberations throughout Washington this week over this issue along with the 9/11 Commission findings. What has been the president's reaction to this book and the reaction its received and the debate - the back and forth over it?

First Lady Laura Bush: Well -- since I don’t know Dick Clarke, never met him -- this idea that he's trying to imply that the president was not serious about his obligations and to the people of the United States and I know that's absolutely wrong.  When my husband was sworn in at his inauguration - when he swore to protect the Constitution and the people of the United States he took that, and takes that very seriously.
And I know that -- I think it’s a political year. There are certainly political overtones about what he has to say and some of the things that are happening on the 9/11 Commission, and I’m sorry about that because the 9/11 Commission should be a real forum for all of us in the United States to find out what happened and how we can protect ourselves better in the future.

DG: Do you fear that at this point, even at this point, it’s become a little bit too much of a tradition of pointing fingers?

LB: No. I’m not saying they’re pointing fingers at people. I just think there’s getting to be a political overtone.

DG: Did the president view this book as an act of disloyalty or … political?

LB: No, neither one, really. He, you know, Dick Clarke has worked for the government, worked for the government for a lot of long years, as I understand it, through a lot of administrations, and so I would not say that, you know, he felt like he owed him any sort of loyalty at all.

DG: Is the implication really that the president didn’t fulfill his duties or is it a question of urgency?  There are always a lot of important issues, and the central charge here is that al-Qaida, terrorism, in general, was not front and center prior to September 11th.  Is that a fair charge?

LB: Well, you know, I don’t know, and I don’t know exactly what he is charging.  I have not watched all of his testimony, but I do know that my husband takes his responsibilities as president very, very seriously. I know Dr. Rice takes her responsibilities as national security adviser very, very seriously, and I know everyone in my husband’s administration takes their responsibilities seriously. My — I mean - I don’t see how my husband could let people know any more how serious he is about protecting the United States and the people of the United States. That’s his sworn, solemn duty as president. And I think, I think the people of the United States know that and know he takes it seriously.

DG: Just one more on this subject. Do you fear at this stage that there is some political fallout? Do you fear that the president’s ratings strain handling the war on terror has been undermined?  It’s raised questions for people?

LB: No, not really. No, I don’t think so. I mean, I think the American people know how devoted and determined my husband. I mean, they’ve seen him, they’ve seen him in every situation.  They’ve seen him in — when the United States military liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban, Iraq from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein or — you know, I just feel like people know him better than what any charges might be from someone who just, who they don’t know.

DG: Let me ask you about politics. How do you see your role?

LB: Well, in politics you mean?

DG: In this campaign.

LB: Well, of course, I’m a campaigner for my husband. You know, that’s — I know him better than anyone, and it’s a pleasure to be able to campaign for him and a privilege to be able to campaign for him and travel around the country. It’s also just fun. There are people that I know, the event I just did in Tallahassee for a political candidate who is running for office, you know, that’s just fun for me. There’s a lot of friends there… I enjoy that. I enjoy the chance to see people, old friends…

DG: You have kind of an unassuming political persona to you, and yet —

LB: I really don’t feel like I’m very political.

DG: Are you a secret weapon for your president — for your husband?

LB: No.

DG: Are you surprised that some people view you that way?

LB: Yes, really. I mean, I’m his wife. You know, he’s my husband.  We have a relationship that’s a lot different from a secret weapon or whatever. That’s sort of a calculating spin on something that really is something a lot more vital than that.

DG: You are very popular though, and you have such widespread appeal that, in many ways, seems to cross party lines.  How do you try to use that appeal to help him this fall?  How does that — what’s the calculus?

LB: Well, there isn’t a calculus, but I’m happy to campaign for him. I want to campaign for him.  I want him to be re-elected. I think he’s a great president, and so I’m happy to be able to do whatever I can to help. In the end, I think people vote for the person who’s running for president and not the spouse or anyone else that’s associated with the president.
But I know him best, and I have the opportunity to tell people a viewpoint of him that they might not have or might not know, so that’s really a pleasure and a privilege for me.

DG: There is, even in some of the recent campaign commercials, a very deliberate placement of your photograph.

LB: That picture is actually right there on the table. It wasn’t deliberately placed.

DG: Right. But it underscores, well, I should ask the question this way. As I say, you have an unassuming kind of political persona, but you also have influence. How do you insert yourself into the campaign?  If you see something that you don’t like, you know him best —

LB: Well, if I see something that I don’t like, I speak up, of course, absolutely, to him. I’m not going to call people on the phone, other people and make them feel bad. But, also, what I do have the opportunity to do is to talk about issues that are really important to me, like education. I’ve had the chance to go around the country to talk about the No Child Left Behind Act, how important it is for the United States and for our children and our schools. So, in those ways, certainly, I would, you know, say what I think and let people know about it in the campaign and in the administration.

DG: I want to ask you about education just a minute, but I want to ask you first about this race. How do you size up this race between Senator Kerry and President Bush?

LB: You’re asking the wrong person, I guess. I mean, I know it’s going to be a very close race. I think it’s going to—every political race is a tough race, but we forget that between each one of them. We think this is going to be the toughest, and then remember another one that’s tough. I think it’ll be an interesting race, and I think George W. Bush will be re-elected.

DG: Are you surprised at how divided the country remains?

LB: No, I don’t see that. You know, I read it in the newspaper and see it on television, reports, reports of it, but that’s not what I see when I travel. I see a lot of people whose husbands or wives are deployed in the Middle East, and they’re very, you know, they say, we get letters from, e-mails that say we’re doing the right thing.  We’re really helping to build up Iraq… So I don’t see the division that I think is, frankly, played up a little bit by the media.

DG: Let me ask you about education. You said at one point in your remarks in Orlando that you heard all of the arguments, that there are too many mandates, that there’s not enough funding, and that these kind of excuses are people essentially who don’t believe enough in kids that they can really learn.
So how does the criticism of No Child Left Behind move beyond just excuses? These are a lot of committed educators, in different parts of the country, who think —

LB: There has been a lot of — there are criticisms, and there are some adjustments that Rod Paige talked about today, and in fact that — we still [see] the No Child Left Behind Act as sweeping educational reform. They knew that school districts and states might have trouble with some parts of it. So, by regulation, the secretary of Education changed some parts of it, rather than by legislation.
But, at the same time, it’s so important for all of us to focus on all of the parts of No Child Left Behind that are so crucial to the success of students.  Right now, all 50 states have an accountability plan that they have turned in to the federal government that’s approved.  That’s the first time in history that all 50 states have had an accountability plan.  And when people complain about too much testing, you wouldn’t go to your doctor and say, “Don’t test, and don’t give me this test to diagnose what I have.”  And it’s the same way with schools.  We really need to know what help children need, and if you have tested children, then you know where you can adjust your teaching methods, you know which children need more time, more attention to make sure they succeed.  Otherwise children get lost in the averages of testing and we don’t know which ones really need special help.

DG: Do you think there is something to the argument that there is more expected of local schools, but not enough given to them?

LB: No, absolutely not. I mean, there’s more money associated with this bill than any federal education bill in history — a lot of money associated.  And, in fact, there’s still about $5 billion that states have not drawn down that are in the bill.
It does require a lot of work on the part of the states, and that’s good because we don’t want states to ask for the money and not really be prepared to use it in a really wise way, the taxpayers’ money.  And I respect the states for slowly asking for it, by revising their programs and their strategies before they ask for the money so that the money will be the most effective.  They can use it in the most effective way to help students.
But, at the same time, we know our students can do better than they are doing.  We have a huge achievement gap in the United States. Minority students do much worse on tests than majority students.  Today, the National Association of School Boards, they are celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Education.  It’s been 50 years, and they really need to make sure that we close that achievement gap and that minority students do just as well as majority students.

DG: When you think about the potential for a second term, obviously, you’re committed to it, the president is certainly committed to it, but do you have those moments where you think, “I’m done with this. I want to go back to a normal life”?

LB: No, not really. I mean, I know that I’ll get to go back to a normal life at some point, and the fact is we have a normal life.  I mean, in a normal life, you’re not subjected to criticism constantly like we have here now, but other than that, we live a normal life.  We sit down for dinner with each other, and we talk to our kids on the phone.  We get to do a lot of the same things.

DG: You talk about this in some of your remarks — the president talks about it as well — how much has happened over the past several years that you never foresaw when the president sought this office. What kind of strain do you see in him after all of that?

LB: Well, we have — we are in very historic times, our country.  Sure, there are a lot of stresses…  The fear of terror, anxiety and the grief that — and I think there is a real grief in our country, that we lost the people we lost on September 11th, that we lost on the war on terror, but also we’ve lost a sort of naiveté that we had. We thought we weren’t vulnerable because terrorism happens somewhere else and not here. But I also see, and this is what we always get to see, is how strong Americans are and that Americans can do what’s hard, and that’s what my point was also to our board members today, is that we can raise the standards, so our students excel. They can do what’s hard. They can do a really good job, and that’s what I see around this country, also. The president and me, we draw strength on the strength of the American people, and fortunately our country and the people are really strong and have that great, strong American heritage that we see every day.

DG: When you’re out campaigning, what is it that you hope people see in you?

LB: I hope people see somebody who really cares, who really cares what happens in our country, that really cares what happens to the children of our country.  You know, that’s what I hope they see.

DG: I think we’re good for now. I think you have to get going.

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