The Blog

The Riddle of the First Lady

Laura Bush is a gracious hostess, a political asset, an emerging conservative, and still, nearly a total mystery.

6:00 PM, Sep 1, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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New York

LAURA BUSH is fond of telling people what a reluctant campaigner she is. She often mentions how, at the beginning of her marriage, she made her husband promise that she would never have to give a speech. Last night Laura made her seventh appearance at a national political convention, and delivered her third national convention speech (she spoke briefly in 1996). She did not look reluctant.

It has been quite a transformation for the first lady. Originally a reticent speaker who was ambivalent about politics, she is now a fierce campaigner for her husband. As she has made this transformation, Laura Bush has adopted a measured, relentlessly on-message speaking style, and not coincidentally, seems to have become more conservative, too.

LAST NIGHT was vintage Laura: Steady, gracious, and quietly political. She's a polished speaker, but not without some nerves. From behind the podium you could see that she made the speech standing on one foot--keeping one foot raised 6 to 12 inches off the ground behind her at all times, and alternating between left and right. She touted her husband's accomplishments and slyly attempted to neutralize two of the most common Democratic attacks. Speaking about Iraq, she deftly turned the topic of war into a home-and-hearth issue, as Christopher Caldwell noted. She then parried Ron Reagan Jr.'s arguments against President Bush's stem-cell policy by mentioning that she too, has lost a parent to Alzheimer's. It was a disciplined performance.

She has been disciplined all week. Compared with Teresa Heinz Kerry, it's easy for anyone to look scripted. But take the first lady's performance on Tuesday morning. In the space of a couple hours she did sit-down interviews with five networks, and stuck doggedly to her talking points.

On ABC, she told Diane Sawyer:

When you look at Afghanistan, where the Taliban was, where they supported al Qaeda, now in Afghanistan women are free to walk outside, little girls are in school. Over 10 million Afghans have registered to vote, including 40 percent of that number are women. When you look to Pakistan, which is now our ally in the war on terror, or to Iraq where the Iraqi Governing Council is now responsible for Iraq and is trying to build a free society there, I mean, the fact is we are winning. There have been huge changes. Libya has now decided that they will dismantle their nuclear program. And it really is very, very hopeful and it's very heartening. I feel really good about what's happening.

On NBC, she told Matt Lauer:

When you look around the world and see in Afghanistan that women now can walk out on the streets, that 10 million Afghans have registered to vote, 40 percent of that number are women. The little girls are in school there. When you look at Pakistan, who is now our ally in the war on terror, or Libya where their leader is now dismantling their nuclear program. When you look at Iraq, where Saddam Hussein is in jail cell and the Iraqi Interim Government is responsible for the government there, I think we've made great success in winning the war on terror.

On CNN, she told Bill Hemmer:

When you look at Afghanistan, where now 10 million people are registered to vote, 40 percent of those people are women. When you look at little girls back in school in Afghanistan. When you think that Pakistan is now our ally in the war on terror, that Libya is dismantling their nuclear program, that Saddam Hussein is in a jail cell in Iraq, and the Iraqi Interim Government is governing there.

And so on. Another one of her constant themes has been the success of women entrepreneurs during the last four years. In an exchange with CBS's Harry Smith, the first lady exhibited the same devotion to message that has made George W. Bush such a formidable candidate over the years:

Smith: Thank you very much for being with us this morning. I want to talk a little bit about your role in the campaign. Among the things that you've been talking about is the rebounding economy. You've been talking about job growth and the economy rebounding--

BUSH: Women entrepreneurs--

SMITH: --but last week, new numbers came out that suggested that there are now more than 35 million Americans living in poverty. The number of people who have--living without health insurance in America is now over 45 million. If your husband gets credit for the rebounding economy, should he also take responsibility on the numbers on the down side?