Presidency: Laura Bush, Post 9/11

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Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

While the country has been focused on George W.'s recent transformation -- he came into office sounding like Warren Harding and now usually comes across like Harry Truman -- wife Laura has undergone her own post- 9/11 metamorphosis.

Pre- 9/11 she was Barbara Bush without the loveable smile and the gray grandmotherly hair. Like Barbara she promoted literacy and hinted in interviews that she did not share her husband's views on abortion. On the Today Show she pointedly told Katie Couric she did not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. (Candidate Bush's position during the campaign was that it might be a great idea if Roe were overturned, but that it wasn't going to happen given political realities.) And like her mother-in-law, Laura had higher poll ratings than hubby George. While his numbers hovered in the fifties, she scored in the seventies.

Then came the war, just in time to ruin the Bush family's fall vacation plans. (In the Queer Parallels File: In 1990 Saddam spoiled the Bush I family's vacation in Kennebunkport. Now Osama was spoiling the Bush II family's getaway plans. Instead of spending their fall weekends at Camp Crawford they'd be at Camp David.)

Laura's first moment was inauspicious. Like her husband she didn't know how to react. Husband George looked scared. Laura looked unimpressed. In news clips from 9/11 she barely betrays any hint of emotion. You get the impression she had just filed away the news on a shelf in her mind marked terror as if she were still a librarian concerned only with the placement of things and not the things themselves. Barbara Bush, in contrast, probably would have let the attack register on her face.

Laura Bush, the Barbara Bush clone, only less impressive. Like her husband, she seemed an inferior copy of the original.

The first indication that a new Laura Bush was emerging was the leak from the White House that she had reprimanded George for saying he wanted Osama"dead or alive." This was unBarbara-like behavior. (Barbara's advice to Laura when they first met was never to criticize her husband's speeches. Ignoring the advice, Laura shortly gave an honest assessment to her husband of one of his speeches. He promptly crashed into the family garage.)

But the most obvious sign of a new Laura was her decision to give the Saturday morning White House radio address only presidents had delivered since Ronald Reagan. Never before had a first lady been allowed to substitute for the president.

Hillary had tried to reinvent the role of first lady and failed. Laura with a single address succeeded.

It wasn’t just the fact that she had delivered the radio address, but what she had said."The fight against terrorism," she remarked,"is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women." Spoken by any ordinary citizen the words are hardly extraordinary. But coming out of the mouth of the first lady? This was big news. Never again could the administration ignore the plight of women around the world without the first lady's own words coming back to haunt them. In effect, she had rewritten American foreign policy.

Now there would be His and Her presidential doctrines: The President Bush Doctrine and the First Lady Bush Doctrine.

Whether Karl Rove dreamed up the radio address, he must be happy with the result. President Bush can now arguably lay claim to a feminist agenda even Bill Clinton did not hope to advance. In a stroke the president has shored up his image with the one group which has given him the least support: women. And he has done so in a convincing manner. Laura Bush is, if nothing else, an authentic spokesperson now for women's rights in a way no one else in the administration has been.

This is the obvious achievement. The less obvious achievement is that no one has even thought to criticize Laura Bush for exercising the kind of power ordinarily reserved to presidents. Unlike Hillary, she found a way to exercise presidential power and get away with it. In a country that is deeply suspicious of unelected first ladies who interfere in national affairs, this is an extraordinary development.

So is she still a pale imitation of her mother-in-law? Comparisons between Laura and Barbara, though inevitable, are unfair. They come from different generations and have to meet different expectations. In the administration of Bush I the men played with international policy, leaving issues like literacy to wife Barbara. He rearranged the world. She appeared at schools and read from children's books.

In the administration of Bush II the women played as important a role rearranging the world as the men. While Connie jetted to faraway places to meet important world leaders, W. went to schools and read from children's books. The president as first lady. West Wing meets East Wing. West Wing adopts agenda of East Wing. West Wing looks like East Wing. Unlike Barbara, Laura never complained that the administration was ignoring her literacy campaign. Her program was the president's program. Both were focused on promoting reading. Given her background as an education major with an advanced degree in library science, she often seemed more credible as a spokesperson for the administration's chief cause than her husband.

Still, Laura did not leave the impression that she would redefine the role first ladies play in American life. Most comparisons unflatteringly called her another Bess Truman. But in the weeks since 9/11 Laura has reinvented herself very much as her husband has.

War, like they say, has many unintended consequences.

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ina - 12/12/2001

"You get the impression she had just filed away the news on a shelf in her mind marked terror as if she were still a librarian concerned only with the placement of things and not the things themselves."
Librarians are very much concerned with 'things' - knowledge - as you would know if you'd ever asked a librarian for help.