Laura Bush gains image of comforter

After terrorist strike, first lady takes action to console the nation

`A symbol of calm, stability'

Terrorism Strikes America

September 16, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - First lady Laura Bush, so often reluctant to appear in the national spotlight, has emerged as the consoling face of her husband's administration in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks.

At a time of national crisis, when small gestures carry powerful emotional weight, the first lady has put herself and her sorrow within reach. She has implored parents to shield their children from the horrifying television images of the destruction, urged Americans to give blood, visited victims in their hospital beds and closed her eyes in prayer for the dead.

In doing so, she might have found the major public role that so far had largely eluded her.

As it happens, the Bush administration was to begin showcasing her in a series of relatively high-profile events - her first Capitol Hill appearance was planned for Tuesday, she was to begin fund raising for the Republican Party, and she was contemplating her debut solo trip to Europe as first lady.

But those plans were put on hold last week after the terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Instead, Bush finds herself assuming a far more intimate public profile.

"We live by symbols at these times, and she has become a symbol of some sense of calm and stability," said Lewis Gould, a retired University of Texas history professor who has written extensively about first ladies.

`Sharper focus'

Until now, Bush has taken small steps onto the national stage, acting as host for a conference on early childhood development and a national book festival. But in the first nine months of her husband's presidency, she was probably best known for avoiding the glare of the news media.

"She really hasn't been very well defined until this moment, but this crisis puts her in sharper focus," Gould said. "It turns out she's a natural at this - a comforting figure who is as sure-footed as you could have asked under these extraordinarily difficult circumstances."

Dressed in a black suit, her face etched with the strain of the week but betraying no tears, she appeared Friday at a national prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington as a woman in mourning.

In the days before, again and again she had spoken about her distress in the wake of Tuesday's attacks.

"Like every parent, I called my children immediately, as soon as I could get to them, to reassure them," she told NBC, describing her immediate reaction to the blasts. "And then I called my own mother for the comfort of her voice."

Offering advice

Last week Bush appeared at Washington Hospital Center and Walter Reed Army Medical Center, visiting service members injured in the explosion at the Pentagon. At Walter Reed, she told reporters: "All of us now in America have a chance to show our resilience and our courage."

She gave interviews on every network morning show, offering advice for parents to help children cope with the tragedy. She also sent "Dear Student" letters to the public schools, in which she urged young people to reach out to one another for comfort and told them that they are safe and loved.

"You may be feeling sad, frightened or confused," she wrote in a letter to elementary school pupils. She told them, "Write down your thoughts or draw a picture that shows how you are feeling and share that with the adults in your life."

Bush was on Capitol Hill, about to appear before Congress for the first time - at a forum on early childhood learning - when the second plane hit the World Trade Center.

Before being whisked away to a secure place, she appeared before the cameras looking ashen, again asking parents to reassure their children.

To some, she is doing exactly what all first ladies do - just with more attention because of the tragic circumstances.

"It would be interesting in the days ahead if she's particularly visible and does anything that's particularly unusual," said Betty Boyd Caroli, author of two books about the social duties of first ladies. "It's just too soon to tell if she has found a new role."

The first lady, a former public school teacher and librarian, has also articulated the resolve of her husband - who in the first hours of the tragedy was criticized for not always finding language powerful enough to address the scope of the crisis.

"He has a lot of strength of character," she told CNN. "He also has a lot of confidence in our country, that we're not going to be brought to our knees by something like this."

Nation's nurturers

First ladies often take action in times of turmoil.

Eleanor Roosevelt's visit to Guadalcanal during World War II won raves. "She symbolized some boy's mother back home more than the wife of the president," wrote the Pacific Times in 1943, cheering her salutary effect on military morale.

But most wartime first ladies are best known for rolling bandages, christening ships and staying safely in the distance.

Edith Bolling Wilson let sheep graze on the front lawn of the White House during World War I and auctioned off the wool to raise money for wartime charities.

Mary Todd Lincoln became a target of criticism during the Civil War because of her Confederate relatives, lavish White House entertaining and expensive dresses.

The role of the nation's nurturer is stressful, but part of the job is to not show the strain.

"We put so much responsibility on our first ladies - she's a person, not the Statue of Liberty," said Neel Lattimore, spokesman for Hillary Rodham Clinton when she lived in the White House.

But Lattimore praises Bush for so quickly taking on the job of speaking to the nation's grief.

"We look to a first lady to do what we can't do - to visit the people in the hospital, to be the softer side, to be our voice, our eyes, our spirit and to represent us," he said. "She is shouldering that burden."

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