WASHINGTON — As Laura Bush tells it, she and her husband were pulling into the driveway one night when she turned to him and said the speech he had just given wasn’t very good. He drove into the garage wall.
No wonder the future president went a little off course. These were words from an endlessly supportive wife, who had till then heeded advice from mother-in-law Barbara Bush never to criticize her husband’s speeches.
The family car — or at least the ranch pickup — has been safe ever since.
Sure, she let it be known she didn’t care for his “dead or alive” ultimatum to Osama bin Laden. But first and foremost, this first lady is cheerleader to the president, and one who has used a louder megaphone this campaign than in the last to tell people what a great guy she and the country have landed.
In speaking so often of him, she has revealed little of herself.
“Very disciplined,” she calls herself. “I don’t really have to watch everything I say, because I’m pretty well behaved as it is.”
In measured steps, Laura Bush has put a sharper edge on her campaigning this year. She’s making the political speeches she once wanted to avoid. She’s traveling without her husband more often.
Moving beyond the uncontentious topics of literacy, heart disease and the increasing well-being of Afghan women, she pushed into the debate over stem cell research, in the process taking guarded but unmistakable shots at the opposition.
Paul Costello, who was press secretary to Rosalyn Carter and has kept up on first ladies since, says Mrs. Bush embodies what most people like in a president’s spouse: She’s articulate, smooth, attractive and not in your face.
“She’s a fund-raiser, she’s a surrogate,” he said. “She goes into safe environments and she plays it well.”
It’s Mrs. Bush’s fortune to be measured not just by who she is, but who she is not. Unapologetically deferential to her husband, self-effacing in leaving policy details to the politicians and the experts, the girl who grew up on Humble Avenue in Midland, Texas, has given the country a quiet counterpoint to strong-willed predecessor Hillary Rodham Clinton.
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Laura Bush moved the first lady’s office back to the East Wing from the West Wing, putting distance between herself and the policy-making side of the building and symbolizing a return to tradition.
Then she tugged at tradition by letting it be known she doesn’t care for the stiff title first lady — a departure that might have set critics howling if Mrs. Clinton had said the same thing.
“Her biggest success, or accomplishment, I think is that she’s not been Hillary,” Costello said. “That’s how she wanted it.”
But he adds: “Behind those eyes you can probably see someone who is very honest, forthright and has strong opinions behind closed doors. She doesn’t seem at all to be a milquetoast. There is a formidable woman there — she just (chose) not to showcase that.”
Lately, however, Mrs. Bush has thrown gentle barbs at her husband’s presidential rival, John Kerry, and has spoken bluntly on a controversial topic.
Stem cell defense
During a recent speech in Pennsylvania, Mrs. Bush defended her husband’s limits on embryonic stem cell research. “We don’t even know that stem cell research will provide cures for anything — much less that it’s very close” to yielding major advances, she said.
With her husband, Mrs. Bush says she’s not “a sounding board.” It’s less a matter of discussion of issues and “more of emotional support, I think. You know, comfort. Being there with him.”
Perhaps her most important job in this campaign is to improve her husband’s standing among women, and she wastes no opportunity to play up the qualities in him that most reflect that imperative. But she is not one to publicly chew over political implications.
Her reticence was on display when an Associated Press reporter rode with her during a swing in the Midwest and Pennsylvania.
Does she know why more women than men are swing voters?
Could it be that women are more open-minded or independent?
Are suburban women the key?
“I don’t know about that.”
What issues do women most care about?
“I think the economy’s important to women,” she said. “I think, obviously, education is very important. ... I think security and stability’s important to women in our country.”
Her visit earned headlines such as: “First lady charms Toledo crowd,” “Aims to narrow gender gap,” “Touts Bush’s leadership: ’He has a good heart.”’
The Bushes’ 22-year-old twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, are campaigning this time around.
“We love it,” Mrs. Bush says, adding that the two give emotional support and help their parents relax on the road.
Proud of the twins
“I know that the American people are interested in the families of the president, the families of candidates,” she said. “I’m proud that the girls want to be involved, and this is the first time they’ve been old enough to be involved in any of his races.”
Of all the first ladies, Laura Bush’s style most resembles that of her mother-in-law, says Myra Gutin, a historian of first ladies from Rider University.
Both are interested in literacy and education, Gutin says. “They advocated it with a certain number of public appearances but neither one gave the appearance of having a significant input in matters of public policy.”
Born on Nov. 4, 1946, Laura Welch was the only child of Jenna and Harold Welch of Midland. She grew up shy and reserved, biographer Ann Gerhart writes.
She became even more so after a fateful night at age 17.
On a clear evening and with her parent’s permission to attend a weekday party, she ran a stop sign on the way, plowing into a Jeep driven by a classmate, who was a good friend. The boy died in the accident.
“In its aftermath, Laura became more cautious and less spontaneous, more inclined to be compassionate, less inclined to judge another person,” Gerhart writes.
She went on earn her degree in education from Southern Methodist University, and later taught in public schools in Dallas and Houston.
She is the second first lady, after Mrs. Clinton, to hold an advanced degree. She earned a masters in library science from the University of Texas, Austin, and worked as a public school librarian in Austin.
In 1977, she married George W. Bush.
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