Married up

October 11, 2002

ONE OF THE MOST predictable lines in President Bush's all-purpose stump speech is the introduction of his wife, Laura, with the observation that he married above himself. Her performance so far as first lady suggests he may be right.

He's cocky, she's reserved. He's flip, she's thoughtful. He's constantly in motion, she moves at a deliberate pace. She's extraordinarily literate. Sometimes it seems he can barely talk.

Politics is in his blood and bones. She's all but apolitical. It doesn't naturally occur to her to divide the world into Us vs. Them.

Now, as her husband is leading the nation to the brink of war with Iraq, Mrs. Bush is holding her second annual National Book Festival tomorrow on the Capitol lawn.

If history is a guide, it's likely that at least some of the 70 featured authors and storytellers will be outspoken opponents of her husband's policies.

The message is not that she's being frivolous in serious times. She's signaling instead that culture and pursuits of the mind exist on a different plane, and should be unaffected by politics or ideology. If war is being debated inside the Capitol, the need to wallow in the beauty of graceful writing may be all the greater.

Like all first ladies, Mrs. Bush counters the president's masculinity with a feminine style. But each occupant of that peculiar post has had her own way of doing that.

Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan were so fiercely protective, their husbands seemed kinder and gentler in contrast. Hillary Rodham Clinton seemed an intellectual kindred spirit to her husband. Both have a talent for politics as well as policy. Both seemed to be loved and hated by the public with about equal intensity.

The image that Laura Bush projects is a calming antidote to her husband's impetuousness -- telling him, for example, that he sounded like a cowboy when he said Osama bin Laden was wanted "dead or alive."

With small gestures of advice and compassion, she emerged as the administration's consoling face in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.

This may all be skillful White House packaging. Behind the scenes, she might actually be throwing furniture and screeching at the household staff, as Mrs. Clinton was alleged to have done during her early days in the executive mansion.

But the former librarian's delight in books is self-evident. And her use of forums on American literature to showcase fine work regardless of ideology is a rare and welcome departure in a White House that seems tone- deaf on the need for diversity of views.

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