waltzes into new role
Initial days in Washington a study in poise, restraint
By Faye Fiore / Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News-February 28, 2001
|Newspaper and Journal Articles-Quoted||WASHINGTON -- To fully
appreciate Laura Bush's unruffled passage from Austin,
Texas, to Washington, turn back the clock to Day 2 of
Hillary Rodham Clinton's first-ladyship. By then, she had
moved into the West Wing with the administration's senior
advisers, set out to revamp the nation's health-care
system and launched a prickly relationship with a media
pack that likened her inauguration hat to a flying
By contrast, Laura Bush's transition to the role of first lady has been a waltz -- carefully choreographed and largely uncritiqued, signaling the nation that she is in no hurry to make her historical mark.
Indeed, 13 days after George W. Bush took the oath of office -- with a portrait of the couple's twin daughters yet unhung and the walls of her office bare -- Laura Bush left Washington for Crawford, Texas, to oversee refurbishing at the beloved ranch that serves as the family's retreat.
"She had a life when she got to Washington, she's going to have a life when she leaves and, by George, she's going to have one while she's there," said Anna Perez, former press secretary to former First Lady Barbara Bush, Laura Bush's mother-in-law.
The new first lady's first days in Washington were a study in restraint and good breeding. From the ruby-colored ball gown so exquisitely tailored that it held its place when she raised her arms to dance with the new president, to the chocolate birthday cake she presented the top House Democrat, she revealed herself to be a skilled, if reluctant, public figure who appreciates the importance of the political gesture.
She dolloped out her presence in reserved portions -- sitting beside the president in Week 1 as he rolled out his education reform plan, a subject that meshed nicely with her librarian's passion for reading. She moved the first lady's office back to its traditional place in the East Wing, a statement that she would not be meddling in matters of policy. She assembled a partial staff of 16, informed staffers, "We always take the high road," and then left for more than two weeks at the ranch.
The emerging snapshot of the new first lady of America looks a lot like the snapshot of the former first lady of Texas -- no reinventions, comfortable in her skin, prefers barbecue to black tie and a bob that works for dressy or casual.
Laura Welch Bush, 54, is a self-described introvert who likes singer Van Morrison and margaritas on the rocks. She has a graduate degree in library science, but is baffled by computers. She goes to bed early with a good novel. Her shoes are organized by color and her books by the Dewey Decimal System. She is a fiercely protective mother and her husband's best friend.
While his energy is mercurial, hers is steady. She tamed George W. in his wild days and she grounds him in these heady ones -- protective of him and irreverent toward him, sometimes correcting his tortured language with an affectionate: "You idiot!"
During her two weeks at the ranch refuge, she searched for an antique table, picked out bedroom drapes and reconnected with the circle of female friends she's had for years.
"She's sort of taking a deep breath," said Anne Johnson, a close friend who spent a recent afternoon at the ranch. "She knows what's ahead of her. She was very, very active as first lady of Texas. It got to be where we could rarely go to lunch or do any antiquing, she had so many speeches to give. Well, multiply that times 50."
The recent separation from the president -- which ended when he joined her last weekend in Crawford -- has been one of the longest of their 23-year marriage. He called her two or three times a day. For Valentine's Day, he sent her roses and she sent him a heart-shaped coconut cream pie, his favorite. Clearly, this is not a Clintonesque political partnership, but a first marriage that is part conventional, part baby boomer -- delighting traditionalists and occasionally horrifying feminists.
Laura Bush is the president's ballast. Not a politician, exactly, but not a political novice. When his campaign struggled last summer and his Democratic opponent, Vice-President Al Gore, pulled ahead in the polls, she counseled him to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show, deciding the nation had yet to know the real George W. Bush. It softened his image and gave his campaign a needed boost.
Laura Bush acknowledges that she and her husband do not always agree politically -- even on whether a woman's right to an abortion should be overturned -- but she likes to keep the details to herself. One of Laura Bush's challenges is to pull away from the thoroughly modern Hillary model without looking like "a 1950s dishrag," said historian Gil Troy of McGill University in Montreal. "So far, she's done it."
Others, however, said her moderate viewpoint will do little to change the president's mind and would only make him appear less conservative than he truly is.
"I have some concern about whether Laura Bush as first lady may play some of the role Barbara Bush did in softening the image of her husband's presidency ... whether she will be part of an orchestrated PR campaign to say this really is a compassionately conservative administration," said Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women.
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