DALLAS (AP) — A Dallas conference to explore the power and mystique of first ladies that will culminate with a panel featuring Laura Bush and her mother-in-law, Barbara, began Monday with a discussion on the influence of the women who have held the post throughout history.
"The thing to me that is so remarkable about the women who have assumed this position is how much guts they have, how much brains they have, stamina that is beyond imagination and a willingness to rise above it and just do it," said Allida Black, a research professor of history and international affairs at The George Washington University.
Opening the conference, Anita McBride, who served as Laura Bush's chief of staff in the White House, said, "Every first lady writes her own job description."
McBride, who is now an executive-in-residence at the school of public affairs at American University in Washington, chaired the conference hosted by the George W. Bush Presidential Center at the Southern Methodist University, where Bush's library is under construction.
In a morning panel, historians discussed several first ladies including Dolley Madison, whose influence in Washington went far beyond her time as first lady, and Lady Bird Johnson, who had the hard task of taking on the role after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
"It wasn't like when anybody else came into the White House," said Bess Abell, who was White House social secretary for the Johnsons.
The Johnsons waited weeks before moving into the White House and the press secretary was asked repeatedly when they would. Abell said Lady Bird finally stopped the questions with the proclamation: "Heaven would that I could help Mrs. Kennedy's comfort, but at least I can help her convenience."
Catherine Allgor, a history professor at the University of California, Riverside, who has written on first ladies, said that wasn't until Dolley Madison that the United States had "a real political animal" in the role.
"She establishes so many things that we now associate with the first lady," Allgor said.
Journalist Cokie Roberts, who moderated the panel with historians, said Madison "essentially remained first lady even after her successors came in. She ruled over Washington for decades."
Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was scheduled to moderate a conversation with Laura Bush and Barbara Bush in the afternoon.
McBride said she hopes the conference — a collaboration between the White House Historical Association, American University and the National Archives, which oversees presidential libraries — helps people "gain a broader understanding of the significance of this role."
"It just is a job description that no one completely understands," she said. "They each bring their own background, their interests and their knowledge to bear."
Similar events focusing on other first ladies are being planned, including a conference set for the fall on Lady Bird Johnson at her husband's presidential library in Austin, McBride said.
"Not every place has a living first lady," she said. "The idea is to take components of the program to match the interests of the libraries."
Bush's presidential center is set to open in spring 2013. It will feature a presidential library and policy institute, which has already started programming.