Handling the first lady, gently


Aide: Behind every successful first lady is a devoted chief of staff to help shape her role in the public's eye.

March 22, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - First ladies and their staffs don't have ordinary professional relationships. Nancy Reagan's press secretary used to perch on the edge of the bathtub in the White House residence, taking notes while Reagan applied her makeup. Barbara Bush's chief of staff used to attempt scheduling miracles, knowing all too well how much Bush hated spending a night apart from her husband. Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief of staff used to meet her boss so soon after Clinton awoke that Clinton's face sometimes still would be lined from the bedsheets.

So it makes perfect sense that Andrea ("Andi") Ball was chosen as chief of staff to Laura Bush not for her Washington experience - Ball has none - but for her personal closeness to the first lady. In this job, Ball joins an elite group of aides who have glided between the personal and public domains of the White House.

Already, the position is posing challenges: No sooner had the Bushes moved into the White House then the first lady left for the family ranch in Crawford, Texas, spending more than two weeks out of view and returning to Texas for another six-day stretch again last week. Ball is trying to smooth the transition of the famously private Laura Bush into the national spotlight - her office has explained that Bush has had too little time to move the family into new homes in Washington and Texas - but she still can't stop the news stories that have asked, "Where's Laura?"

It's far different from Hillary Rodham Clinton's activist debut, but Ball understands that Bush does not want to be who her predecessor was. Eager to carve out her own identity, Bush will visit Southern California today with Mexican President Vicente Fox to promote early childhood education.

It is her first engagement outside the capital without the president, and Ball will be at her side the whole time.

Theirs is an easy partnership. Ball knows her boss's interests cold: She helped Bush organize educational events like the Texas Book Festival, a widely popular tradition when Bush was the first lady of Texas.

Most of all, Ball understands Bush's style: The first lady aims for visibility on the issues closest to her without ever seeming like a policy-maker out to rival her husband.

Ball brings this sensibility to a job she never actually accepted, since Bush never formally offered it. Why bother, when they knew she'd say yes?

"It's kind of funny - we never really even talked about it," Ball says on a recent afternoon, sitting in the clutter of her half-unpacked office. "There was always just this assumption that it would happen."

In a White House known for recycling its experts from the first Bush administration, Ball is scrambling to teach herself the rules for the first time. Now, she boasts, she has figured out where to put her car (there's a lot near the East Wing that senior staffers use). She has mastered how to stay out of the way of tourists in the public rooms (walk outside, no matter the weather). And she has learned how to respect the personal space of talk-show divas in White House hallways (she waited for Oprah Winfrey to say "hi" and shake hands first during Winfrey's recent visit).

Ball, a pixyish 51-year-old veteran of Texas Republican politics who has worked for Bush for the past six years, took little time to prepare for Washington. She simply packed up her clothes and her treadmill and showed up, leaving behind family, furniture and her familiar Austin.

"I had no idea how to get around here," Ball says, recalling her first visit to the White House shortly before George W. Bush's inauguration. "At the time, Mrs. Clinton and her staff whisked us off to the Map Room. And that night, when we went back to the hotel, I thought, `We're going to be there. How do you know that's the Map Room? There's not a single room that has a sign that goes, Map Room.'"

Ball, a Michigan native who began working in Republican politics in 1984 with the successful first-time campaign of Rep. Joe L. Barton in central Texas, joined Laura Bush's office after George W. Bush won the governor's race there in 1994. Soon, she was named "chief of staff" to Laura Bush - though Ball notes that she was actually the only staff.

Now Ball leads Bush's 19-woman crew, talking with Bush at 7 a.m. and running up to the residence to confer on the day's schedule. She arranges events for Bush around serious themes - such as initiatives to bring new teachers into classrooms - but makes sure the message is delivered in a motherly style. Bush is photographed reading to children at almost all her education events: Staffers talk up the first lady's ability to read upside down so she can show the kids the pictures.

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