This weekend I’m hopping on a plane for a reunion with colleagues from the Bush-Cheney Administration. When I first left Washington, D.C. a decade ago, I knew my time there had provided unparalleled lessons for life. I had a front row seat to history right out of college, watching servant leaders grapple with the aftermath of 9/11 and navigating America’s place in the world. I learned from expert communicators how to tell a story, craft a message, and use a platform to educate and inspire others. With each year that passes, I realize again how incredibly blessed I have been to work for President George W. and Mrs. Laura Bush.
My experiences taught me to look for character in our nation’s leaders. As a result, I pay more attention to what’s said and done in private than what makes the daily headlines. I look for humility, appreciating the strength required to ask tough questions and make wise but unpopular decisions. Most of all, I cherish the gracious wisdom offered by those who don’t find it necessary to share everything they feel or tell everything they know.
Long before I knew I’d marry an Air Force senior leader or be thrust into local spotlights as “Mrs. Riselli,” my time in the Bush Administration introduced me to countless leaders whose example guided me after I traded my White House staff ID for a military ID card dubiously labeled, “military dependent.”
I saw servant leadership in men like Tom Ridge who began serving his country immediately after college. He knew wartime needs were urgent, so rather than waiting for a commission, he enlisted in the Army to fight in Vietnam. After hanging up his uniform, he would continue to serve the people of Pennsylvania in various capacities for decades. He left the Governor’s office only when his good friend named George W. asked him to spearhead America’s new homeland security efforts. I never stopped marveling how a leader with such grave responsibilities always had a smile for even the most junior staff like me. On my darkest day, Secretary Ridge picked up the phone and called me to tell me he was praying for me, and he wanted me to know all the people at the NAC were thinking of me too. I’ve never forgotten his call – and I’ve endeavored to follow his example, extending compassion through my words and my presence supporting others on their darkest days, too.
I benefitted from the wisdom of women like Karen Hughes who chose to leave the West Wing and return to Austin, Texas, so her son could graduate high school with his friends. After her son left for college, she returned to Washington during President Bush’s second term in office. I realized my dream of becoming a speechwriter while working with her at the State Department. I remember talking to her about balancing career and family, tucking away her hard earned wisdom for the family I didn’t have yet. Years later when my second daughter was born, I heard her counsel in my mind as I evaluated my priorities and chose to pursue motherhood full time.
Among the myriad of lessons I learned working for the Bushes, the best advice came from Mrs. Laura Bush. When The Dallas Morning News recognized her as 2018 Texan of the Year, I cheered loudly from Missouri, sharing the well-written editorial widely with friends around the world. In nearly every message I also included a personal note, telling fellow military spouses, “She taught me to be myself, to be comfortable in my own skin, and to believe I had something to offer in every new assignment.” One of them reminded me recently to share this story here.
While they were building the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Mrs. Bush would travel occasionally, speaking at events and sharing stories about their time in the White House. When I began working remotely as her speechwriter, I learned one of the stories she frequently shared about finding her way as First Lady. Reporters repeatedly asked her, “Who do you want to be? Hillary Clinton or Barbara Bush?” Her answer, she said, was always the same: “I think I’ll just be Laura Bush. After all, I knew Laura Bush pretty well, having grown up as her in Midland, Texas.”
I remember nodding enthusiastically the first time I heard her say, “I think I’ll just be Laura Bush.” She had just provided a framework to answer the questions I encounter most often as military spouse. My identity isn’t tied to a title or dependent upon anyone else. My identity is as sure and unchanging as my name, “I’m Katye Balls Riselli.” I think I’ll be her, no matter where the Air Force winds send us. I’ve weathered Box Elder winters, braved the heat of Shreveport summers, and seen quite a bit of cows and cornfields in Knob Noster, Missouri. I’m the same person no matter where we live, and I’ve looked for ways to use my talents to leave each place better than I found it.
Mrs. Bush’s quiet wisdom has helped me navigate all the roads I’ve traveled since leaving my office in the East Wing. More than a decade later, the Air Force has asked us to change our address seven times with at least one more on the horizon.
I’m often asked, “How do you do it? Does it bother you to move so much?” I find myself responding much like I once heard Mrs. Bush explain how she handled the challenges of the presidency. “Yes, it bothers me,” she would say, “but I don’t let it get to me. I know who I am.”
Military spouses, it’s ok if this life sometimes bothers you. Whether it’s the pace or the place, it bothers all of us. But don’t let it get to you. Remember who you are, and even the worst of days is no match for the best of you.
Friends, I hope these short stories from my days in D.C. offer wisdom for your life wherever you live. If you haven’t already, please subscribe on my homepage so you can read stories like these in your inbox.