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Grace, mettle define first lady

She has eyes as blue as bluebonnets - and enough grace, sincerity and composure to fill up the entire state of Texas.

And don't forget the kindness, civility and inner mettle.

First lady Laura Bush leaves a legacy of graciousness for America to ponder as she trades the White House for the Lone Star state. It's been close to 3,000 days since Mrs. Bush arrived in Washington to offer a consistent, comforting presence as the nation faced astonishing, unprecedented challenges.

It was Mrs. Bush, of steady gaze and calm demeanor, who told Americans to take solace in their families and communities just days after the Sept. 11 attacks. That public service message revealed a subtle but unmistakable steel in her, a certain protectiveness.

And it was the first lady who has traveled to 75 countries since then, bringing her own brand of global diplomacy to the Middle East and Africa in particular. Mrs. Bush also has drawn renewed and often reinvented attention to literacy, women's health issues, environmental causes, community heritage and the woes of forgotten children.

She is the only first lady to deliver the president's weekly radio address, calling attention to the oppression of women suffering under the Taliban. And she has a memoir coming out as well, tastefully scheduled to be published a year after she leaves public life.

"President Bush and I have had such a special privilege of being able to represent the people of the United States. We'll return to Texas with cherished memories of our friends, our staff, and our time at the White House," Mrs. Bush said.

The events, the people, are "extraordinary."

And that's it for goodbyes, essentially. No grand curtain calls, no giant parties, toastmasters or dramatic speeches on some Jumbotron somewhere.

"Laura Bush did it right. Hard-working, patient, always gracious. And nice. History will give her very high marks," said talk-show host Greta Van Susteren of Fox News, who accompanied Mrs. Bush on a tour of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

"I am a big fan of first ladies. They work nonstop without pay, with a sense of purpose. They're on the road, hustling for us," she continued. "I've been in the public eye. I don't mind getting attacked in the press. But I can't imagine how hard it could be if your husband is getting whacked every day for eight years."

Mrs. Bush, 62, did just fine, if opinion polls are any gauge.

She enjoyed some of the highest public approval on record for a first lady, according to Gallup. Mrs. Bush's favorability rating consistently ranged from 74 percent to 82 percent over the years, even as Mr. Bush faced a daily gantlet of critical press and contentious punditry.

"When Laura Bush entered the White House as first lady, she really entered as just that: a lady. She demonstrated that it was culturally possible to be a lady, to have a cause and to be professional about it," said Michelle Bernard, president of the Independent Women's Forum.

"She was dedicated to children's literacy and international women's rights - advocating for early breast cancer detection in Muslim countries where women must get permission from their husband to even get a mammogram. Laura Bush's outreach was done in such a genteel way that it had significant impact. It was classy, it was elegant," Mrs. Bernard continued.

"One of the most important things women should take away from Laura Bush's tenure is that she truly reflects that there are many different kinds of feminists. She has dispelled many of those old stereotypes," she added.

"She is an excellent mother, dedicated to her husband and family, and she enjoys being married. Still, she can advocate for women's rights. She would appear to be someone who feels that marriage and children have not hampered her ability to be a feminist."

Mrs. Bush was not skittish about her role as traditional wife.

"She keeps me focused on what's important," Mr. Bush once said of his spouse.

The couple was introduced to each other by mutual friends at a backyard barbecue in 1977 and married three months later to the astonishment - and delight - of family and friends.

She gets kudos from her mother-in-law, too. Former first lady Barbara Bush has always said her son George is "madly in love" with his wife.

"Laura is a rock," she said when the pair first headed to Washington in 2001.

Even the late Molly Ivins - a Texas columnist who was fond of calling Mr. Bush "Shrub" over the years - said Mrs. Bush "is just as nice as she can be."

But there's the glint of steel that is part of Mrs. Bush - maybe because she's a Texan, maybe because she was a public school teacher or mother of two.

Her official legacy bristles with accomplishments. She has journeyed to Afghanistan three times, coordinating 30 public and private partnerships to support that country's development.

She publicly has condemned terror campaigns in Burma and has promoted education for boys and girls in Africa and 40 other countries. Her stateside efforts to promote reading are legendary; she also has launched global efforts to counter malaria, AIDS, breast cancer and heart disease.

The state of the nation's great public parks, historic sites and the protection of oceans and coastal regions also have come under her protection.

"With all her calm grace comes a fierce and practical determination. It's a wonderful combination," said John Bridgeland, chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises, a former assistant to Mr. Bush and the first director of the USA Freedom Corps.

"She has had an intense interest in civic engagement, disadvantaged young people, Afghan women and children. She has used her bully pulpit to speak about national service, about the problem of malaria," Mr. Bridgeland said.

"The numbers of people who have done volunteer work has risen from 59.8 million to 65.4 million in recent years, according to the Census Bureau," he added. "And I am convinced that it is due in part to the first lady and President Bush."

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