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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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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.