Archive for Sunday, April 22, 2001

Reading Laura Bush

Novel first lady continues to elude the public

April 22, 2001

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— Everybody wants to know: Is Laura Bush a '50s retro wife? Or a thoroughly modern woman? Whatever that means.

Is she publicly genteel and privately tart? Is she smarter than he is? Does she work to make herself somehow smaller next to him? Is she a stealth adviser, influential behind the scenes, or a dutiful helpmate, fading into the background?

In this Age of Celebrity, how we love to stereotype public personalities to fit our mood of the moment. We're so eager to take all the "ands" of a complex personality and replace every one with an "or."

Hillary Rodham Clinton stars as the Neo Feminazi Witch or the Fully Actualized Modern Female, depending on which type is doing the typing.

And Bush? She is deliberately disinterested in dealing with the question of herself as a symbol, a type. She sits in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House residence, warm and readily amused. Her strong, practical hands are folded in her lap. At 54, she is focused and deeply calm, temperamentally inclined to recede. She likes to laugh.

The only hint of irritation comes after she is asked what expectations the American people have of her.

"I don't know that," she says. "I don't have any idea."

Then she adds, "I actually think that the American people think that the first lady oughta do whatever she wants to do."

She's made a subtle alteration; the question is not about what she will do as much as what she is. Fairly or not, the American people want to be able to know, or at least type, their first lady. So far, she's eluded them.

"It's a very odd job. There's no doubt," says the woman who currently holds the very odd title.

First. Lady.

The president she invariably calls him the president when speaking about his work has given her a nickname: First.

The odd job's description has changed over the decades. It's gone the way of the Miss America pageant looking pretty and walking right is not enough. Substantive issues must be rolled out, yet none of the traditional duties may be removed.

Intellect and social grace

Her staff of 17 includes both a party planner and a policy director. The first lady says she enjoys moving back and forth between hostessing and advocating. "I love houses. I like furniture; it's fun for me.

"I have a good time walking up and down the halls" of the White House, she says. "At the same time, I like to work on other issues, outside the social realm."

Then, once more, she alters the question about what people expect of her to what people expect from the position, one of the most malleable in political life.

She decides, uncharacteristically, to offer an opinion before she is directly asked: "You know what? The fact is, first ladies have always had an intellectual part of the White House, not just the social part. I think we don't give earlier first ladies as much credit as they deserve."

And she cites not her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, one of the most popular first ladies, nor Clinton, who always led with her brainpower, but Lady Bird Johnson, another Texas wife initially seen as bland. Historians have reassessed Lady Bird's quiet smarts and perfect manners, and upgraded her influence. "She was very effective in the job," says Bush.

Love for literacy, literature

Her own goal is to get people to choose teaching and to firm up preschoolers' reading readiness.

"Actually, one of the blessings of being first lady is you have the chance to focus on one or two major interests," Bush says. "And in the end it makes such an impact that some presidents can't make because their legacy is so much more mixed."

If she is eloquent on education, Laura Bush uses a separate, simpler vocabulary when talking about herself. She answers agreeably with declarative sentences that could come out of a Dick and Jane primer. It's curious to hear, coming from a woman who steeps herself in the words of emotionally dense novels.

"It's exciting. It's really fun," she says of being first lady.

When she went to the Capitol for the president's budget address, "I was nervous. He was not." Why? "I don't know. I think I just by the end of the day maybe started having the jitters. He did so great."

Asked about her impressions of the rambunctious George W. when they met in 1978, she says: "I thought he was very fun. I also thought he was really cute. George is very fun. He's also slightly outrageous once in a while in a very funny and fun way, and I found that a lot of fun."

Within six weeks, they were engaged. "We were very happy to find each other," she explains. "We were 31 and hoping to find someone to marry and very happy to meet each other."

A reserved confidence

Deep inside her very private life, Bush may well be a woman whose passion is ideas. She laughs off this notion, but her hobbies are the solitary pursuits that captivate only those whose minds are engaged.

The voracious reading is one.

Her reading list reveals a certain intellectual rigor, like the complete works of Willa Cather. She is reading all of Edith Wharton's novels for a second time, along with a biography of Wharton.

Conservation is another.

She's kept a birding journal for years. At their Texas ranch, the Bushes agreed to preserve several hundred acres of hardwoods that are home to the rare golden-cheeked warbler.

Regan Gammon, her friend since they were in Brownies, says Bush has a breadth of knowledge history, culture, the natural world, art but never offers it unless asked.

"She knows it, and that's enough," Gammon says. "She doesn't need to have you know she knows it."

Those within the Beltway know there are maybe five people with that quality in Washington.

No wonder Laura Bush keeps going back to Texas.

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