THE TALK OF THE GARDEN last night was Arnold Schwarzenegger's exuberant tribute to the American freedom that first drew him to fame and fortune in California. Every other pundit compared his oratory to Ronald Reagan's. Many Republicans criticized the organizers for failing to end the evening on that rousing note, rather than with Laura Bush's subdued chat. They're wrong. Mrs. Bush's was an elegant effort and her steady contribution to the campaign will be more decisive over the long haul.
Mrs. Bush is proving, in her quiet fashion, a tremendous asset to her husband's campaign. CNN last week reported that 63 percent of Americans have a good opinion of her, versus 20 who don't. A Los Angeles Times poll carried out in recent days was even more impressive, showing a 72-percent approval rating. It also compared her numbers to those of her counterpart, Teresa Heinz Kerry. Seventeen percent said Mrs. Bush's actions made them more likely to vote for her husband, versus 3 percent who said less likely. The numbers are reversed for Mrs. Kerry: 12 percent say she makes them more likely to vote for Senator Kerry, versus 17 percent who say less likely. By a margin of 56 to 26, Mrs. Bush better fits the public's idea of what they want in her role.
How come? Mrs. Bush has been helped throughout the campaign by the nonchalant and apolitical-sounding way she replies to questions--whether, for instance, she thought the anti-Kerry ads posted by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were unfair. ("Not really," she said.) For those who backed the vets, this was agreement. For those who opposed them, it was an opinion to which she is entitled. It wasn't entering the fray. Unlike recent presidential wives and aspirants to the job, she has shown no desire to prove herself a "Policy Player in her Own Right," on the Hillary Clinton model.
And this was Mrs. Bush's main source of appeal on Tuesday night. She was capable of speaking directly in a way that is bracing (even shocking) at a political convention. "I am enjoying this campaign" is not spin. Neither is "I want to try to answer the question that I believe many people would ask me if we sat down for a cup of coffee or ran into each other at the store."
Some would say this is evidence that Americans like her for the wrong reasons: because she plays a subordinate, pre-feminist role in her marriage. But something like the opposite is true: Her speech was simple, but it was not ingenuous. What she did with her anecdotes about soldiers' husbands learning to do laundry ("Once you turn everything pink, it stays pink"), her admission that "this time of war has been a time of great hardship for our military," her description of the war on terrorism as "the issue that I believe is most important for my own daughters," is transform a foreign-policy issue into a hearth-and-home issue--the secret of successful wartime oratory from FDR onward.
Mrs. Bush's opposites--those Policy Players in Their Own Right--offer nothing so interesting. They can even make the voter feel sorry for them. They tend either to be vying with their husbands or pursuing an agenda the success of which is abjectly dependent on their husbands' electoral success. This, of course, means that Type-A first ladies are not Policy Players in Their Own Right at all. Herein lies a feminist paradox. One would have to go back to Lady Bird Johnson or Pat Nixon to find a presidential wife less entangled in--and dependent on--the career decisions her husband has made. One gets the impression that the life she has made for herself would change little if her husband failed to win re-election. This renders Laura Bush free--which, non-ideologues may need to be reminded, is a synonym for "liberated"--in a way that feminist rhetoric finds difficult to capture. This freedom may be the very thing voters notice, and like.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.