DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — First lady Michelle Obama told a group of African counterparts Tuesday that she has one of the “best jobs in the world,” without the minute-by-minute crises and pressures that constrain her husband.
“They come into office with a wonderful, profound agenda, and then they are faced with … ,” she said, before a knowing voice jumped in.
“Reality,” said Laura Bush, finishing the sentence with the authority only a few in the world can muster.
That rare confluence of perspective emerged from the George W. Bush Institute’s African First Ladies Summit, as the current and former American first ladies joined to motivate the continent’s leading women and to discuss the importance of investing in women internationally.
It also marked the third time in over a year that the Bushes and the Obamas have stood together on a global stage. Tuesday, George W. Bush and President Barack Obama also met to lay a wreath at the site of the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania.
The first two occasions were dictated by tradition: the unveiling last year of the Bushes’ official White House portraits and the dedication in April of the Bush Library. This time — with Africa and women on the agenda — the union entirely was by choice.
As Michelle Obama explained why it was important for her to participate in the summit, she looked over at Laura Bush and said it partly was because “I like this woman.”
“There’s a lot of give and take when you’re campaigning,” Obama said. “But when the dust settles, we are all in this together.”
Though the Obamas’ Africa trip and the Bushes’ visit were planned independently, the presidential couples took advantage of the overlapping itineraries to make a bipartisan show in this bustling east African city.
Few expect the Bushes and Obamas to develop the close relationship the Clintons share with the Bush family.
Barack Obama continues to blame his predecessor for a sluggish economy. And George W. Bush’s brother Jeb appears to be eyeing his own White House run, which could mean incessant stump speeches attacking Obama’s record.
But the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — the multibillion-dollar investment that Bush started and Obama has continued — is an enduring, cross-party bond.
The joint appearances Tuesday could signal a burgeoning partnership on select issues, especially in Africa.
“You don’t have to be a Republican or a Democrat to care about women,” George W. Bush said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News.
As Obama has toured Africa over the last several days, he has praised his predecessor many times for the vision to take on AIDS on the continent.
Noting that the program has saved millions of lives, Obama called it one of Bush’s “crowning achievements.”
Earlier in the trip, Obama suggested that he’s had a tougher time getting a GOP-controlled House to support such expansive foreign aid. He later clarified that the relief program under his administration is serving more people at a lower cost, which allows a new focus on other diseases.
“We’ve continued that work, and we are going to continue that work,” Obama said Monday.
Laura Bush said that eventually the number of AIDS cases will decrease to a point where there’s less of a need for PEPFAR. And while that time hasn’t yet arrived, the Bushes said, there’s now the opportunity to use that platform to combat cervical cancer and other diseases.
“It’s a little too premature for the government to withdraw from PEPFAR,” George W. Bush said. “But the objective is obviously for these health systems to mature.”
Those kinds of discussions were central to the African First Ladies Summit, sponsored by Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil. Nearly 10 of the continent’s first ladies arrived at the two-day summit to focus broadly on empowering women.
The Bush Institute, part of the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University, also used the conference to announce its plans to host similar summits each year in Africa and possibly other parts of the world.
“In country after country, women stand at the forefront of life-changing progress,” Laura Bush said. “You are advocates and agents for change, and none of you needs to do it alone.”
To promote that sense of community, she Bush and Michelle Obama sat together to share their experiences working hand in hand with the most powerful men in the world.
They described their many passions — education for Bush, a fight against childhood obesity for Obama and global health for both.
“You’re just starting to get your teeth into your issues, and then it’s time to go,” Obama said, adding that she considers the push for her causes as a “forever proposition.”
They also answered a few questions from the African first ladies sitting the front row, and lightened the mood by dishing on their husbands.
Obama stressed the importance and power of women’s voices, especially since they bring a different perspective to things.
“I love my husband, but sometimes when he has five things to do at one time, it’s funny to watch,” she said to laughter. ” ‘You don’t know where your jacket is right now … and can’t find that shoe, Mr. President.’ “
Laura Bush, in turn, recalled when her husband was first running for Congress in West Texas. As George W. Bush pulled into the driveway after a campaign event, he asked his wife for the truth about his latest speech.
“I told him, ‘It wasn’t really very good,’ and he drove into the garage wall,” she said, as the crowd roared.
More than anything, they encouraged the African first ladies to carve out roles in areas they care about. They talked about ways to avoid being put in a box as many people fixate on their shoes or hairstyles.
“We take our bangs and we stand in front of important things the world needs to see,” Obama said. “And eventually people stop looking at the bangs and they start looking at what we’re standing in front of.”