Portrait of a Lady

On an oppressively humid day in late July, a slew of female aides in Crayola-colored suits scurry under the stained-glass windows of Georgetown University's Gaston Hall. They are preparing for the White House Summit on Early Childhood Cognitive Development, a conference highlighting "First Lady Laura Bush's Education Initiatives." An hour and a half after the media arrive, Laura Bush steps up to the podium. Wearing a candy-apple-red suit and speaking in her confident Texas drawl, she recites letters she and the president have received from kids desperate to learn, telling the audience that "the years from the crib to the classroom represent a period of intense language and cognitive growth." And then, her introduction complete, the first lady steps aside--and says nary a word for the rest of the conference. For nine hours over two days, the speakers discuss the intricacies of early learning, an issue with which the first lady has identified herself more than any other. But Laura doesn't interject a comment, raise an objection, or even ask a question. She listens in silence. 

It's a strange way to host a conference. But then, over the last few decades, the position of first lady has become an awfully strange job. Historically, the role was largely private. Neither Bess Truman nor Mamie Eisenhower gave political speeches, press conferences, or radio broadcasts--let alone presided over televised conferences on education policy. Indeed, while Bess slunk off unimpeded to pout in Independence and Mamie spent thousands of dollars on the first couple's retreat in Gettysburg, Laura Bush crinkled brows across the capital when she spent two weeks early in her husband's presidency buying linens for the family's Crawford ranch. Increased media scrutiny accounts for part of the shift, but so does feminism. Today most Americans expect the first lady to have a public persona: to have independent talents and issues that she pursues for the good of the country. Even the National Federation of Republican Women wouldn't accept a first lady like Mamie, who boasted that "Ike runs the country and I turn the lamb chops."

But this has made the job harder, not easier. Before feminism, it was brutally constricting; today it's simply impossible. The twenty-first century first lady must be poised. Polished but not slick. Accessible but not intimate. Smart but not ambitious. Motivated, interested, an advocate--but never political. Beautiful but uncaring about her appearance. Happy. She must retain her own identity but negate it where it diverges from her husband's. And if a first lady appears unhappy with those requirements, even a little, she weakens the administration and is pilloried not only by its enemies but by its friends.

Laura Bush resolves this conundrum by filling all these contradictory expectations simultaneously. Or, more accurately, by allowing them to fill her. Depending on whose account you read, she's a quiet intellectual, a career woman, a stay-at-home mom, a teacher, an empowered woman, or a society wife. She was deeply committed to her career as an educator and felt no pressure to marry; yet she left the classroom more than two decades ago without a backward glance. She is an intellectual--a voracious reader-- yet she appears to have no dark, subversive, or even complex thoughts. She is totally fulfilled by her husband, although he seems uninterested in, or ignorant of, her intellectual and literary pursuits. She is passionate about education yet offers no opinions that don't shadow her husband's. She is the Play-Doh first lady: Mold her into whatever shape you want, then stamp her back down into a pile of putty for her next audience. Is it a pleasant existence? Probably not. It's certainly not an honest one. But for a public figure absurdly caught between society's conflicting notions of what women should be, it's a way to survive.

First ladies weren't always forced into such contortions. Until 1960 the first lady was important for social functions, for rearing the first family, and for presenting the president as a family man. But she wasn't required, or allowed, to be outspoken about issues. The job was never enjoyable; Martha Washington called herself a "state prisoner." But it was straightforward.

Eleanor Roosevelt was an exception: FDR's disability helped make her an essential part of the White House operation. But with Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower, the first lady's role became private once again. It was not until 1960 that an administration discovered the first lady's public relations potential. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy provided glamour, family connections, and a multilingual education to a family that, for all its wealth, still craved old-money respectability. Her disdain for the average American would have ruined her in today's media maelstrom--witness the backlash against Nancy Reagan when she tried to follow Jackie's example 20 years later. But in an era when life in the White House was the subject more of curiosity than of scrutiny--and when the presidency itself inspired awe, not casual derision--Jackie was worshiped. Thousands copied her hair and clothing styles. When she refurbished the White House, showcasing historic preservation and the arts, she won accolades. She performed "woman's work," albeit a society woman's work, and, for an Americajust waking up from the 1950s, that was enough.

But, as the '60s wore on, conventional notions of femininity gave way to feminism, and it was only a matter of time before those changed expectations infiltrated the White House. Increasingly, first ladies had to twist themselves into knots to meet modern ideas of what women could be, without exceeding the traditional bounds still enforced by large swaths of society--all under the increasingly intrusive eye of the public. Lady Bird Johnson, the first to try on this role, may have fared the best. Lady Bird's "actions rarely sparked criticism or controversy," writes Myra Gutin in The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century. "However, even though she did advocate projects that were safe, and was not an initiator, these criticisms are tempered by all that she did accomplish." She is widely cited as a catalyst for the modern environmental movement, and she pushed Lyndon subtly to the left. "Man, Lady Bird was just shrewd," sighs George Washington University Professor Allida Black. "She lobbied people behind the scenes and played a key role in Head Start as well as a crucial role in keeping the South in line after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act." The first first lady to campaign without her husband, Lady Bird braved a whistle-stop tour of the South at a moment when her husband's programs were least popular. Lady Bird spoke of her "Southern birth, kinfolk, and memories" while pleading that it would be a "bottomless tragedy for our country to be racially divided."

Still, Lady Bird's outspoken defense of her husband's policies was tolerated precisely because they were his policies. A president who can't control his wife is seen as a president who can't control the country, as soon became apparent. In the summer of 1975, Betty Ford, in an interview on "60 Minutes," spoke frankly about sex, her relationship with her husband, drugs, abortion, and her children. Asked what she would do if her teenage daughter, Susan, had "an affair," the first lady said she "wouldn't be surprised" because "she's a perfectly normal human being like all young girls, and if she wanted to continue I would certainly counsel and advise her on the subject." The first lady admitted "all" her children had "tried marijuana" and that she probably would have, too, had she come of age in the '70s. Later that summer, the first lady told McCall's magazine that she wanted to have sex "as often as possible" and boasted that she "got a woman in the Cabinet" and was "working on getting a woman on the Supreme Court." "Mrs. Ford's candor may have killed her husband's chances of winning in 1976," writes historian Gil Troy in Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to theClintons.

Rosalynn Carter came to the White House determined to be an activist first lady--particularly on mental health issues. But by then feminism's advance had made the balance between advocacy and wifely duties all but untenable. After Rosalynn toured Latin America on behalf of her husband in 1977, Judy Woodruff, then of NBC, sniffed, "You were handed an assignment simply because you were the wife of the president--isn't that kind of a setback for the women's movement?" Rosalynn was stuck: not feminist enough for feminists, too feminist for those who feared them. Her presence in Cabinet meetings provoked harsh criticism: When the president fired several of his Cabinet members in midsummer 1979, Rosalynn's defense of the purge prompted Republicans to dub her "Lady Macbeth," as though she were responsible for the shake-up. To defuse the situation, Rosalynn defensively told The Washington Post: "I sat in on the meetings. I don't say 'Do this' or 'Do that.' I don't ever do that to him. We just discuss things. I'm a wife. I like to know what's happening. I have never been interested in detail of policy and legislation." Her image as an adviser, she insisted, was "exaggerated."

Ultimately, of course, it was Hillary Clinton who exposed the agony of the office. After eight years and innumerable versions of Hillary Clinton, one sentiment can be distilled from every profile written about the former first lady: a distinct sense of discomfort. Too much of a feminist to be just a presidential accessory, she was a dubious feminist icon all the same. After staunchly retaining her maiden name for the first half of her professional career, she suddenly--and expediently--let it slip into second place behind her husband's, where it disappeared and reappeared throughout her husband's tenure in public office. Changing her image, her motivations, and her title (partner? co-president? first lady?) left her open to attack. No one knew quite what to do with her. The first first lady with a graduate degree, refusing to back away from a life of accomplishments? Or a battered and torn tarpaulin, badly shielding her husband's indiscretions?

The difference between the outgoing first lady and the incoming one was painfully obvious at their meeting in December: Hillary in her now-trademark black pantsuit, Laura in a terrible purple plaid number, looking like nothing so much as country mouse. When Laura later announced that the two women spoke about "everything" from "closets to ways to raise children in the White House," some interpreted it as a sign that the role of first lady was being returned to its pre-Hillary, pre-feminist roots. But it's not that simple. Much as they would deny it, Laura and the people around her are careful not to stray too far from the trail Hillary blazed. "Laura is inching toward a third way," says historian Troy; she's "not a feminist first lady but also isn't quite the throwback. She somehow exudes confidence and power, $(which$) makes it difficult to caricature her as some kind of dishrag first lady. That's where she's succeeded."

This carefully managed image of Laura Bush begins with a core, undisputed narrative, related in nearly every media profile by the same set of family friends and White House insiders. The daughter of a homemaker and a homebuilder, Laura hails from "unpretentious folks" in Midland, Texas, where children ran in the street until twilight, when they returned home to unlocked doors. Laura's was a storybook upbringing marred only, as all have breathlessly reported, by an eerie brush with death not long after her seventeenth birthday. (She ran a stop sign, inadvertently killing a friend.) Not long after, Laura left Midland for Southern Methodist University, where she was part of the "cusp" generation whose rebellion went no further than smoking Winstons and wearing peasant blouses. She then spent ten years teaching, earning a graduate degree in library science, and ostensibly not caring if she married or not.

It's an ideal setup: blank. Just enough to feel like she's within reach, not nearly enough to pin her down. And from there, profilers are allowed--indeed encouraged--to see in Laura Bush whatever they see lacking in her husband. Listen to Bush adviser Karl Rove, gushing to Vogue: "$(W$)hat people don't realize is that this is a woman of enormous strength. You have to be, I suspect, to be married to a Bush." In this telling, Laura is not an incidental but an essential ingredient of the Bush political machine. W., we're told, would never have made it to the White House without Laura's down-home insistence that he choose her or the bottle. She's the frontier wife, a babe on each hip, telling the man she fiercely loves that he better put down that Jack Daniels or walk right out that door. W.'s history of carousing and clowning (not so terribly unlike her second graders) was smoothed, "mellowed," by Laura--a role she has continued to play, according to her part-time biographers, in the White House. "Bushieeeee," she'll say with a warning lilt if his clowning goes too far. We heard it in her speech at the Republican convention when applause from the floor went on too long. "That's enough," Laura said sternly to her flock. Ah, we can all sigh. Laura will keep her mothering hand on our teenage president.

Yet equally important is Laura's demure refusal to confirm her centrality to the story--which leaves its true import open to interpretation, softening the image for those who might read it as a sign of presidential weakness or hidden female authority. "The ultimatum was an exaggeration," she told Harper's Bazaar. "I think that was a joke... $(W$)hen somebody gives up drinking, they're the ones who do it; they're the ones who deserve the credit." The Bazaar piece subtly shifts the iconography of this first lady back to a supporting role. In it, Doro Koch, W.'s sister, confirms, "She teases him a lot. She'll say, 'You're completely wrong.' She'll correct him, but not seriously." Adds Lynne Cheney, "She has no compulsion to put all of her accomplishments on the table... She doesn't feel a need to be anybody but who she is."

It's all part of the balancing act: a strong mothering figure but not just a mother, a traditional wife but also a contemporary woman. When Katie Couric asked Laura, within hours of the inauguration, if she was a "very traditional woman," Laura balked. "I don't think that's really exactly fair," she responded, "I've had traditional--jobs that were traditionally women's jobs... I had the luxury of staying home and raising my children... That was really what I wanted to do, was to be at home with them. But I also think that I've been a very contemporary woman in a lot of ways. I had a career for a number of years. I didn't marry George until I was in my thirties. I worked on issues always that are very, very important to me, either working as a teacher or librarian or working as a volunteer or working as the first lady of my state. And so I think I'm both ways."

Both ways, indeed. Although she was a stay-at-home mom, the Bush camp reminds reporters at every turn that Laura spent ten years in the classroom. "One of the things we really admire about Mrs. Bush," Noelia Rodriguez, Laura's press secretary, told CNN last week, "is that she's very much a contemporary woman. She had a career before she was married. She married ... in her early thirties, then had her children later." Phrases like "a teacher by training" are often tacked to Laura's name, simultaneously providing feminine bona fides and a weightiness the Bush camp appears to think "housewife" and "full-time mom" do not. It seems to have worked. Paul Burka, who profiled Laura for Texas Monthly, told Chris Matthews in April that, even though "she hasn't taught anything for years and years," teaching is a "big deal to her." Laura herself has told interviewers that "I've always done what traditional women do" but adds that she's also done what she "always wanted." In other words, nothing forced her to abandon her career for domesticity. She chose to.

The problem, of course, is that when you line up all these statements side by side, they conflict. By all accounts, it was Laura Bush's dream to teach. "Growing up, I practiced teaching on my dolls," she told Cokie Roberts in May, using the same line she employed at the Republican convention in August. "I'd line them up in rows for the day's lessons. Years later, our daughters did the same thing. We used to joke that the Bush family had the best-educated dolls in America." It's an anecdote recounted in a dozen profiles, all highlighting Laura's lifelong commitment to education. Indeed, according to the profiles, she never worried during her professional days about being a 30-year-old single woman in a conservative Texas town. "I never once heard her say, 'I wish I could find someone I wanted to marry,'" her oldest friend, Regan Gammon, told The Washington Post during the campaign. Her work was enough. But when she met George W. (marrying him a mere three months later), she gave up teaching faster than her former students emptied the classroom at the final bell. And she hasn't regretted her decision for an instant because, as a housewife, she has been utterly fulfilled.

And that's not the only perplexity. Consider another image beneficial to the Bush camp: Laura as a sophisticate, a cosmopolitan. She backpacked through 17 countries the year after college, we are informed; in subsequent years she has spent countless hours in museums and libraries. On her first trip to Europe as first lady, she was reportedly enraptured by her encounters with centuries-old books. Her comments to the rector of a library in Belgium--"It's so beautiful. I am myself a librarian, so I love libraries in particular"--were among the few made public to her waiting media entourage. British newspapers, anticipating the first couple's second tour, dug around and discovered that Laura had spent the summer of 1971 in England on a teaching exchange trip.

Again, it's a politically useful tableau. She is someone who, one would think, would otherwise not find George W. compelling. (Can you picture W. spending time in a library anywhere, let alone in a country where most of the books aren't in English?) Ergo, if Laura finds George W. fulfilling, he must have something more to offer than the bumbling, parochial presentation we see day to day. Her years immersed in the Western canon subtly counteract the image of her husband as shallow and glib. As Dan Quayle showed, it is critical that a male politician suspected of being dim-witted not have a dim-witted wife. And yet, for all the seriousness that Laura's reading brings to her husband's persona, she never expresses a controversial or sophisticated idea about the great books she has thought so much about. She is a deep thinker utterly free of the dark angst or subversive notions that might come from such contemplation. Take her favorite moment in literature, the "Grand Inquisitor" chapter of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Asked about this ambiguous and unsettling passage--in which Christ returns to earth only to be arrested as a heretic and threatened with burning at the stake--Laura replied bafflingly, "It's about life, and it's about death, and it's about Christ. I find it really reassuring."

But it is when Laura Bush makes her tepid forays into the world of policy and politics that the tension between her competing images--between the conflicting expectations that so bedeviled her predecessors--is most salient. She has called herself a "Republican by marriage," even admitting to Oprah Winfrey that, had she not married "43," she has "wondered if $(she$) would have voted for the first President Bush--number 41." Like all Laura propaganda, it's a carefully planned admission, allowing us a false sense of intimacy. It shouts to soccer moms: Her husband's policies may make us shudder, but the pillow talk in the living quarters tempers the man.

Or does it? In a "Today" show interview last January, Laura expressed support for leaving Roe v. Wade untouched. Many liberals were relieved, interpreting her admission as a white flag to pro-choice Americans. (It took years for Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush to reveal the same inclination.) But, queried on that ostensibly candid moment, she has retreated from any suggestion that her personal views matter. She told Oprah that she and George W. "agree on nearly every issue." Pressed further, Laura assured America that the first couple "never sit around and discuss policy" because "the last thing George wants to do is come home and talk about politics with me after he has talked about that all day." When Paula Zahn asked Laura, "What's the best advice you think you've given your husband since you've come to Washington?" Laura demurred with a silly, unlikely nonanswer that surely pleased the conservative audience on Fox News: "Let's see, I don't know. Cut his hair or something. I don't give him a lot of advice. I don't want him to give me a lot of advice. We don't really give each other a lot of advice. I hope that we give each other a lot more support than advice." To Wolf Blitzer she said, "I think wives have to be just a little bit careful about giving their husbands all of their opinions."

On education, Laura has cultivated the role of public advocate, burnishing her husband's reputation as someone personally committed to the issue. This in turn has led her to endorse such unassailable projects as Teach for America, Reading Is Fundamental, and Troops to Teachers. But Bush's budget proposed eliminating federal funding for Reading Is Fundamental--and Laura, of course, expressed no dissent. Members of Teach for America, angered by education budget cuts, wore anti-Laura stickers at the organization's March conference inCalifornia. "I was not elected and George was," Laura has said, "I would never want to undermine him in any way... $(Being the first lady$) gives me the opportunity to further his policy initiatives on education, which I'm going to do. As first lady, one of my roles is to support his policies." Even, apparently, when those policies run counter to her own feelings.

And yet neither she nor her husband has suffered from these contradictions. A poll released last week by the Pew Research Center shows Laura with a 64 percent favorability rating. Although Hillary Clinton enjoyed a 60 percent favorability rating at the same point in her tenure, she was, according to Pew, a "far more divisive figure." Listening (and not listening) to Laura at Georgetownlast week, it was pretty obvious why. Hillary forced the issue, fighting against the limitations and contradictions of her role, trying to carve out a public identity true to her private self--through her struggles, implicitly asking us to make up our minds about a woman's proper role in society. Laura Bush, by contrast, does not try to answer that question. She does not even acknowledge it. Which, deep down, may be exactly what we want.

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