Laura Bush Takes a Larger Role
Administration Hopes for Lift
From First Lady's Popularity
By CHRISTOPHER COOPER
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
December 30, 2005; Page A4
WASHINGTON -- In retooling her staff for her husband's second term, first lady Laura Bush made her wishes clear.
"She was very focused on hiring a chief of staff who understood policy," says former Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, a close friend of the Bush family. The eventual winner, former State Department official and White House hand Anita McBride, was questioned less about the White House social schedule than on whether she could arrange a solo trip to Afghanistan. In March, after weeks of quiet planning, Mrs. Bush and Ms. McBride gave staffers just 24 hours' notice before traveling to Kabul.
At a time when the U.S. is eager to repair its image around the world, the administration has found a willing envoy in Mrs. Bush, who also traveled this year to the Middle East and Africa. While some besieged Bush administration figures are hunkered down, the first lady has assumed a larger role -- and not merely on matters for which first ladies typically draw attention.
Mrs. Bush's more conspicuous policy role has been one of the brighter developments in the president's otherwise rocky second term. She blends private advice with understated public prodding, using her ample popularity as ballast for her husband.
Her heightened profile, friends and associates say, stems from several changes in her life. Her poll ratings remain sterling, even as her husband's have fallen. Her twin daughters are out of school and on their own. The ascendance of some of her friends, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Undersecretary Karen Hughes, has given her easy access to policy levers in the West Wing.
"She likes Colin Powell, but she's closer to Secretary Rice," says Gordon Johndroe, Mrs. Bush's former spokesman, who now works for Ms. Hughes. Ms. Hughes, for her part, calls the first lady "a wonderful messenger" for the administration.
Jody Powell, who served as White House press secretary for President Jimmy Carter, agrees that Mrs. Bush's influence has risen as her husband's difficulties have mounted. But while she can be "a tremendous asset," he cautions that stepping out also places her closer to the political fray.
Mrs. Bush declined to be interviewed for this article. Aides said she dislikes discussing herself.
Indeed, Mrs. Bush so detests personality deconstructions that she sometimes entertains staff with a comedy routine, aides say. "What is your role in the White House?" Mrs. Bush will say, adopting the mocking baritone of a television news anchor. Then she will answer, "Well, today, I think I'll be the president's wife. And maybe I'll also be Laura Bush."
The job of first lady is at once both unstructured and choreographed, a dichotomy that Mr. Johndroe says makes it a most unusual political position. But the first lady is stepping up on both fronts.
Mrs. Bush has a new hairdresser, and now sports a Seventh Avenue wardrobe that's more trendy than the Dallas-designed clothes she favored in the first term. Her staff, once clotted with Texas imports, has almost completely turned over, and is now dominated by a cadre of Beltway veterans that may give more policy heft to the East Wing, where the first lady's office is located.
The September 2001 terrorist attacks brought White House entertaining to a near halt. But Mrs. Bush's new social director, Lea Berman, says the first lady believes it's proper to entertain again and Mrs. Bush has dived into the role, from making most design decisions herself to sending down recipes to the kitchen that she has clipped from magazines.
A hint of the steel behind her smile was evident early this year, when the White House ushered out longtime head chef Walter Scheib. One East Wing official, breaking months of silence on the issue, cited a "level of arrogance" Mr. Scheib displayed in preparing dishes the Bush family detested -- scallops in particular, which kept appearing on menus despite repeated complaints. Mr. Scheib declined to comment.
Then Mrs. Bush seized on the headlines at a spring press banquet, delivering a slightly bawdy and perfectly timed critique of her husband that cast her as a "desperate housewife" dragged down by her early-to-bed spouse.
In May, Mrs. Bush drew attention by gently chiding the White House security staff for failing to promptly notify the president when a Cessna inadvertently buzzed the White House. Mrs. Bush, who had been rushed to a White House bunker during the scare, said aides should have interrupted his midmorning bike ride in Maryland to deliver the news.
More recently, Mrs. Bush has taken it upon herself to explain her husband's motives and to prod him a bit -- with mixed results. In July, while in South Africa on a trip to draw attention to the AIDS epidemic, Mrs. Bush suggested Mr. Bush replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with a woman -- a stance that seemed to surprise the president. Four months later, during a private dinner with the first couple at their White House residence, Harriet Miers was offered the job. A few weeks later, when critics questioned Ms. Miers's qualifications, it was Mrs. Bush who rose to the occasion, suggesting critics were motivated by sexism.
Asked in September to answer criticism that her husband was slow to respond to Hurricane Katrina victims because many were black, Mrs. Bush gave a brittle reply, calling such remarks "disgusting, to be perfectly frank."
The first lady retains interest in some longtime causes. She still champions literacy and the arts -- she recently held the Fifth National Book Festival -- and continues raising money for Republicans, bringing in $460,000 for two candidates on one recent day.
But her 2005 travel itinerary bears little resemblance to her first-term sojourns. Aside from Afghanistan, she has represented her husband on the West Bank, in Rwanda, and in Tanzania, site of a deadly 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing.
Increasingly convinced the war on terror won't be won at gunpoint, the administration hopes Mrs. Bush's trips can draw on her domestic popularity to make inroads abroad. And she remains popular: In this month's Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, six in 10 respondents rated her favorably and just one in 10 unfavorably. Even Democrats gave her a 2-to-1 positive rating.
In one surprising way, Mrs. Bush is an apt emotional complement to her husband. "I'm a crier," Mr. Bush once said.
Mrs. Bush is not. Her composure was on display this summer, when she met in Rwanda with a 13-year-old orphan raising her younger siblings. While the girl's story left staff members in tears, a grim-faced Mrs. Bush rose from her seat, walked to her next stop in a nearby chapel, sat down in a front pew and smiled.
"I don't know how she does it," gulped one staffer who had fled to the parking lot. "She's got that steely gene, I guess."
Laura Bush Takes a Larger Role