Four women who’ve carried the title “First Lady” talked about their experiences this past week during two separate events in Iowa. Laura Bush, the First Lady of the United States, spoke at a fundraiser in Des Moines on Thursday and told the crowd she wasn’t the sort who sought the spotlight.
“When your spouse is in politics, you’re involved whether you want to be or not,” Mrs. Bush said. “It makes a huge difference for the candidate and the office-holder if his family supports him and if they stay with him and stand with him.” Three women who’ve stood by the state’s past three governors gathered Wednesday afternoon at Terrace Hill, the governor’s mansion, and talked about their experiences as First Lady.
Former Iowa First Lady Chris Branstad was 30 when her husband was elected in 1982 and she had two young children. A third child was born the next year. “My first goal was to make sure that my children grew up normal…I mean, I drove carpool,” Mrs. Branstad said. “As they got older, it got a little bit easier.” Former Iowa First Lady Billie Ray said she decided when her husband was elected governor in 1968 that she would try to give her teenage girls as normal a childhood as possible. “I went nearly always with Bob if I could,” Mrs. Ray said. “But I said the girls came first and if they had some function, then I stayed for that.”
Current Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack’s experience in the governor’s mansion has been different because one of her sons was in college and the other was nearly done with high school when her husband was elected in 1998. “Doug was a senior in high school when (her husband was inaugurated as governor in January, 1999) and I literally left him at home in Mount Pleasant with family and friends and came to Des Moines and went back and forth between the two places for that semester,” Mrs. Vilsack said. “I found the answer to empty nest syndrome and that is that I left my empty nest and started a whole new life here.”
Mrs. Vilsack said the three First Ladies would offer whatever advice the next First Lady might want from them. “When people say ‘Well, what do First Ladies do anyway?’ I say ‘Whatever they want because we’re not elected and we’re not paid,'” Mrs. Vilsack said. “I will defend, and I’m sure these two will as well, the choice that the next First Lady makes, whatever those choices are, we will defend them because we’ve all found ourselves here in different circumstances.”
Mari Culver, the wife of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chet Culver, is a lawyer and Karen Nussle, the wife of Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Nussle, is a college professor. Chris Branstad put it this way. “First Ladies definitely are in a club all of our own,” Chris Branstad said. “I’m just glad that I could have been part of that.”