Washington President Bush clearly adores his wife. But his efforts to put that admiration on public display do not always hit the mark.
Warming up an audience in Charlotte, N.C., the president praised Laura Bush's performance as first lady and offered an explanation for her absence. "It's been raining," Bush said, "so she needs to sweep the porch" of their Texas ranch ahead of a visit by the president of China.
The comment apparently earned Bush no points with his wife. Mrs. Bush, standing with the president Friday on that very porch waiting for President Jiang Zemin, was asked if she appreciated it. She shook her head and mouthed, "No."
The president then passed the blame on to the press which widely publicized the remark for getting him in trouble at home.
Bush's joke last week got big laughs from his Southern Republican audience so much so he repeated it at his two later speeches. But the remark and other aspects of his standard refrain about his wife hint for some at the bad old days of barefoot-and-pregnant references to women.
"It would have been funnier coming out of Bill Clinton's mouth than a George Bush, because we were all so aware of the work Hillary Clinton was doing," said Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations. "Perhaps he's trying to avoid the so-called Hillary backlash. No one can argue with home, hearth and family, and that's what this is all about."
When on the road particularly in political settings Bush nearly always gives his audiences an update on his popular wife.
He starts out by telling the crowd they "drew the short straw" by getting him instead of her. He then likes to declare that he and the politician (usually a man) for whom he is campaigning both married above themselves, and that people are probably surprised that Laura Welch said yes to his proposal.
The president also often offers a glimpse into her whereabouts: just talked on the phone with her, saw her waving from the White House balcony as he left, she is opening a museum.
He typically ends by recalling that when they dated, his now-wife was a public school librarian who did not like politics and "didn't particularly care for politicians." Now, as he told a Republican rally Thursday in Auburn, Ala., "she is the first lady of the United States and she is doing a fabulous job. I'm really proud of her."
Proud or patronizing?
Recently, elaborating on what she has brought to the job, Bush cited his wife's calm, steady nature and deep caring for their two daughters.
"She's got a great smile," he said in Maine. "She's a class act" was the description in Boston.
The expressions of pride strike some as more patronizing than complimentary. Burk, while recognizing Bush's attempts at self-deprecating humor, lamented the lack of reference to Mrs. Bush's intellectual contributions.
"He is not mentioning any substance at all," she said. "He should build her up for the serious work she is undoubtedly doing."
White House communications director Dan Bartlett acknowledges that what Bush intends to get across is not always what comes out.
"It's kind of his folksy approach to communicating," Bartlett said. "It's out of a deep admiration and respect for her."
Indeed, he more often than not will also tell his audiences that "I love her dearly." At a White House Cinco de Mayo celebration in May, he nodded to the first lady, sitting in the front row, as "mi esposa, mi amor" my wife, my love.
Every once in awhile
And it must be noted that the first lady is no shrinking violet.
Just days before her husband took office, she stated that she did not think the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion-rights ruling should be undone, despite the president's strong opposition to abortion
During a behind-the-scenes television special on the White House last winter, Bush told NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw that his attitude toward critics of his sometimes cowboyish vernacular was: "too bad." But he allowed that Mrs. Bush clearly disapproved of the sound bite in question a "not over my dead body" tax pledge and got a totally different response. The president's obedient reply to her: "Yes, ma'am."
Mrs. Bush also revealed during the program that she speaks up "every once in awhile" about her husband's language-mangling. "Those every-once-in-awhiles are pretty blunt," the president commented.
"She calls the shots," Bartlett said. "There's a perception of her as being the quiet one. But she keeps him in his place. She always has a sharp retort when it's needed."