When Laura Bush set out for Afghanistan yesterday, it was a wonder she didn't borrow her husband's now infamous flight suit.
En route to a war-torn nation the president himself has not yet visited, Laura Bush unleashed opinions on subjects she is apparently passionate about. On the tarmac of Maryland's Andrews Air Force Base, she declared solidarity with Afghan women and stressed the importance of educating them. On board, she defended how the government intervened in the Terri Schiavo case.
Having previously fired the White House chef, given herself a sophisticated Seventh Avenue makeover and announced she's taking on the nation's gangs too, observers can only wonder:
Where is the demure, first-term first lady of the downcast eyes, who charmed the world with a Mona Lisa smile but rarely opened her mouth?
Laura Bush is morphing into a more substantial player on the Washington and world stages, first lady scholars say. It's her second term too, meaning she no longer has to worry about her husband getting re-elected and instead can focus on her legacy, they said.
"The clock is ticking, and there is the realization that their place on the world stage is diminishing with each passing day," said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian who has studied first ladies.
Laura Bush's relatively sedate first term will, in effect, give more weight to virtually any action she takes in the second, said Robert Watson, a presidential scholar at Florida Atlantic University and the author of The Presidents' Wives: Reassessing the Office of the First Lady. This is a calibrated political strategy, he added.
"First ladies do better when they start out slower," Watson said, "when they act as if they're not interested in public action."
If Laura Bush does end up becoming more of an activist in the coming years, she'll be joining a tradition of powerful second-term first ladies whose influence grows even if that of their husband wanes.
"There's all sorts of cycles for second-term presidents," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar and a professor at George Washington University. "It's like an hour glass and the sand is running out. You can't run again, you can't get re-elected."
First ladies, on the other hand, gather momentum in the second term, in large part because their power is rooted in popular appeal.
"I don't think there's such a thing as a lame-duck first lady," said Watson.
Laura Bush's emergence actually began in the last campaign, when the crowd-pleasing first lady was considered a sort of secret weapon for her husband's re-election efforts. President Bush frequently joked - or half-joked - that the best reason to re-elect him was to get four more years of his wife as first lady.
Now, as polls show his approval rating at a record low, Laura Bush has the opportunity to serve as one of her husband's chief political assets.
But despite her years as Texas's first lady, she was, in fact, initially less political than most presidential wives.
"I would classify her as a reluctant first lady," said Anthony Eksterowicz, a professor at James Madison University who edited The Presidential Companion, a book about first ladies. "She didn't want to come to Washington. She stayed in Crawford, Texas, a lot for a while."
The extraordinary aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks forced her to rethink that initial passivity, as she comforted a grieving nation.
Still, it would take more time before she embraced a greater public role. But that assurance didn't necessarily express itself in political action, as it did yesterday, said Barbara Kellerman, a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who has studied presidents and their families.
Rather, she simply began making more public appearances in recent months - not always making policy statements, but looking newly confident.
"It's not always about political positions," Kellerman said. "It's about body language, posture."
Fashion goes forward
And, yes, it's about fashion sense. In recent days, Kellerman said, Laura Bush has abandoned her heavy reliance on Texans for her personal wardrobe and home dM-icor, a step typical of first ladies coming into their own.
"In the beginning, there is a strong loyalty to the home state, interior designers from the state, designers from a state," Kellerman said. "But by the time that someone has been in the White House several years that has ebbed, and you go more to the best."
Among first ladies, Laura Bush may be uniquely positioned to reinvent herself. Her first-term persona was understated and deferential, and soothing to a public sometimes still bristling from the memory of her successor, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Yet the success of second-term first ladies is also born of a personal growth that's independent of politics.