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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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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?

BUSH: Sure, absolutely. And those are things we're all working on. But those poverty numbers came from the census report that was actually earlier. The unemployment rate in the United States right now, average rate around the U.S. is 5.5, which is lower than it was in the '90s or the '80s or the '70s. So the economy is rebounding. But absolutely, we all need to work to make sure everybody who wants a job in the United States has one. I've had a really great time talking about women entrepreneurs and meeting women around the country who started businesses. And we know that the small business sector of the United States is really the backbone of our economy, and there are a lot of new small businesses, especially women owned.

WHEN LAURA BUSH first entered the public's consciousness, she seemed to be a fairly moderate Republican. She was a former Democrat. She said she supported Roe v. Wade. Ever the gracious hostess, she invited lefty literary figures to the White House. (And was rudely rebuffed for her trouble.)

But she seems to have become more conservative in recent years. Asked recently whether or not she was pro-life, she replied, "Yes, I think abortion should be rare." She's taken political stands on behalf of her husband, even going so far as to challenge John Kerry directly. During a recent CNN interview she said, "My husband and John McCain have both filed suit with the FEC to ask the FEC to rule on getting rid of 527s, and I'm wondering if Senator Kerry will join me in that suit to make sure that 527s aren't there." Asked if she's the "secret moderate" in the family, the first lady replied, "I don't know about that."

She has even participated--in a gentle way--in one of conservatism's favorite pastimes, New York Times bashing. In an interview with Time magazine, she was asked whether or not she was surprised that the best-seller lists are so partisan. "Whose best-seller list is that?" she asked. The interviewer replied, "The New York Times."

"I don't know how they get theirs," the first lady laughed, "because that isn't always the case on some of the other lists--where Harry Potter is No. 1, 2, and 3--some of the best sellers."

AS A FIRST LADY, Laura Bush has been almost as guarded as she is gracious, and she remains a bundle of small riddles. A former smoker, she has been publicly coy about whether or not she's really kicked the habit ("I'm not saying that I am" an ex-smoker, she told Time). A well-read woman, she's also a voracious reader of mystery novels. And, despite her full-throated support of President Bush's reelection effort, she seems genuinely relieved that this is the final lap. The most intimate moment in Laura's speeches these days is the flickering relief in her eyes after she says of her husband, "This is his last campaign."

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.