The softer side of the presidency

Laura Bush

Election 2004

The Republican Convention

August 31, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- Laura Bush smiled gamely for the news cameras as she took the controls of a quilting machine at a shop in Waite Park, Minn., and started stitching.

She was on a campaign visit to Gruber's Quilt Shop, in the middle of a presidential battleground state, to promote her husband's economic policies in a fittingly ladylike way -- by showing her domestic side at a small business owned and run by women.

What the pictures didn't show was that Laura Bush, 57, the former schoolteacher who has built a reputation as a quintessentially traditional first lady, wasn't quilting at all. The machine had run out of thread. She was smoothly stitching her way through a perfect photo opportunity as if nothing were wrong.

By now, 3 1/2 years into her husband's presidency and in the thick of his re-election bid, she has learned her way around a staged campaign shot.

As President Bush battles for electoral advantage, his wife has emerged, in her understated way, as a key surrogate on the campaign trail. Radiating graceful calm amid the rancorous turmoil of a close presidential race, Laura Bush -- who polls show is far more popular than her husband -- is uniquely positioned to soften the image of the wartime president.

She will set out to do so tonight in a prime-time speech designed to appeal to the undecided voters who could make or break the president's campaign. Bush aides see her as one of his strongest assets. And they hope her popularity and soothing tone will convince waverers that there is careful thought behind her husband's tough talk and compassion behind his decisions.

Laura Bush stood mostly on the sidelines during the 2000 campaign. During her years in the White House, she has taken pains to stay out of politics. But she is playing a prominent role in this year's race, traveling through pivotal states and trumpeting the president's message. She tells voters how his tax cuts have helped businesswomen, how his education plan will lift up children, how his bold leadership has steered the nation through a fearful period.

"I know that you see what I see," she said at a Boys and Girls Club in Royal Oak, Mich. "The president is a steady leader during these historic times."

Laura Bush appeared in Langhorne, Pa., last month to defend her husband's policy on embryonic stem cell research from critics, among them Nancy Reagan and her son, Ron, who say Bush restrictions should be lifted to make it easier for scientists to find cures for Alzheimer's and other diseases.

She stepped up to defend her husband in the dispute over John Kerry's Vietnam War record. In an interview in the latest issue of Time, Laura Bush said attacks leveled by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that accuses Kerry of lying to win medals and betraying comrades by opposing the war, were "not really" unfair. "There have been millions of terrible ads against my husband," she said.

A softer message

But her greatest value may lie not in what she says but in the message her campaign stops seem to telegraph to voters: that anyone married to a woman this kind and nurturing, this friendly and down to earth, this composed, deserves to be president.

"Did she sway votes that day? Oh, yeah, I think she did," said Sue Gruber Poser, owner of the Waite Park quilt shop where the first lady spoke to an audience of about 350 women. "You can't live with somebody like that and not have it rub off on you."

The president frequently opens campaign events with just such a claim.

"I'm going to give you some reasons why I think you ought to put me back into office," he told a crowd Sunday in Wheeling, W.Va. "Perhaps the most important one of all is for Laura to be the first lady for four more years."

She has never liked that title, with its suggestion of lofty stature. Neither does she care for the notion of her "role" as wife of the leader of the free world. Throughout her husband's decade-long political career, she has described herself simply as George Bush's wife and the mother of their twin daughters.

A book lover from an early age and a former librarian, Laura Bush has been active in promoting literacy and educational improvement, acting as host at book festivals in Texas and Washington, and convening a White House summit on early childhood education.

She gained attention after the Sept. 11 attacks, when -- as her husband assumed the wartime role that would define his first term -- she cast herself as the nation's comforter in chief.

But Laura Bush has not sought a seat at the policy-making table in the White House, as did her predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton. She lets it be known that she stays out of debates on policy and strategy, leaving that to the president -- "Bushie," as she calls him, and he her -- and to his advisers.

The result has been that now, with the election race heating up, Laura Bush can draw from a reservoir of popularity among voters. Yet, she is not directly associated with the contentious aspects of her husband's presidency.

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