Divvying up duties: She's compassionate, he's conservative

October 11, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - How could I have forgotten that George W. Bush was a compassionate conservative? He chose the moniker of a kinder, gentler Republican four years ago to distinguish himself from Newt Gingrich's crowd.

Mr. Gingrich's idea of compassion was building a chain of orphanages. This year, Mr. Bush is running as commander in chief instead. It's only in attacking John Kerry that the president reminded us petulantly: "He's a tax-and-spend liberal and I'm a compassionate conservative." He sounded as if he were in a slugfest for the title of nice guy.

Never mind. President Bush never really eliminated compassion from his political corporation. He just outsourced it. To his wife.

In 2004, Bush Inc. has split. George Bush does the conservative; Laura Bush does the compassion. He's running the muscular campaign; she's running the woman's auxiliary, reassuring voters that the president's biggest muscle is his heart. Talk about "hard work."

Every day in her stump speech, Mrs. Bush describes Afghanistan as a women's lib success story rather than a very shaky work in progress. When the Democrats promote embryonic stem cell research, she chides them with "compassionate" criticism for raising false hopes. When asked about the constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, the first lady wished away conflict by declaring that the proposal "opens up the debate." If he's the divider, she's the appointed uniter.

Mr. and Mrs. Bush have always been something of a Mars and Venus couple. The hell-raiser and the librarian. He was rough around the edges; she smoothed them. He drank too much; she made him stop. A TV split screen can catch Mr. Bush looking impatient and arrogant, but Mrs. Bush retains the unshakable ability to look serene.

There were hints that she was a wink-and-nod moderate. When asked about Roe vs. Wade in 2001, she said, "No, I don't think it should be overturned." When asked about the in vitro fertilization treatments that end up with leftover embryos, she said, "That sounds all right with me." After 9/11, this woman won the well-deserved title of "comforter in chief." She was composed and stricken and engaged. In one memorable speech, she talked about prewar "self-indulgence" and wartime "goodness throughout the land."

Every candidate's wife has an impossible role. Of all the women who have tried it this year - from Judy Steinberg Dean to Teresa Heinz Kerry - the most traditional is the least controversial. Part of the wifely tradition is "humanizing" the candidate, as if he couldn't do it himself.

In that way, Mrs. Bush has become the fabric softener for Mr. Bush's flight suit.

But I wonder about the librarian who doesn't defend libraries against the Patriot Act. What about the woman who wouldn't overturn Roe in an administration that would? How can a woman who clearly cares about schoolchildren act as if there is No Child Left Behind? And what did she feel when one New Jersey mother who lost a son in Iraq tried to confront her and ended up in handcuffs?

Only four out of 10 Americans believe that Mr. Bush has governed compassionately. The woman who doesn't influence policy is brought in to influence image.

But it takes more than a first lady to cook up compassion in this White House.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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