- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2000

PHILADELPHIA No sooner had Laura Bush stepped down from the podium at the Republican National Convention than one political reporter, who demurely declined to speak for the record, told the Philadelphia Daily News for its special section on first ladies: "She comes across as a Stepford Wife."Ann Coulter, a conservative partisan to the max, is eager to go on record about Al Gore's lady: "Tipper looks like some gaudy white trash," she says. "For one thing, she's married to Al."
This is about par for the course for size-ups of first ladies across the generations. In fact, it's mild when compared to the epithets thrown at some, for example the wives of Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. A candidate's wife is always vulnerable to her husband's political opponents.
What's different today is that the women's vote has taken on increasing importance. You hear less about "feminism" (which is equated with liberalism and the left) than about "gender gap" politics. George W. Bush is popular with the women of Texas he won 65 percent of their vote for re-election as governor and his wise men think he can win a majority of the women's vote in November. (He's got a big lead already with men.) Despite his moral transgressions, a majority of women supported Bill Clinton over George Bush the elder in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996. But recent polls show George W. and Al divvying up women about evenly.
The women speaking up for George W. in Philadelphia have been an impressive lot. They're not only substantive, but beautiful (though no one is supposed to notice). They've changed the face of the Republican Party, a man might say.
Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington, who was one of three co- chairs at the convention, says George W. has expanded appeal for women. "He could win big with women," she says, "because of his approach to tough-minded reform in education, Social Security, and inheritance taxes." Elizabeth Dole, who dropped out of the presidential race early in the primary season, was rewarded for her prompt endorsement of George W. with a prominent speaking role at Philadelphia, where she emphasized his "strength through integrity." She might even get a spot in a Bush cabinet.
Condoleeza Rice is a "two-fer" a black women who advises the candidate on national security. But she's not an "affirmative action" adviser. Her personal story offers a fascinating twist of historical perception on race relations. She says she's a Republican because the first Republican she knew and most admires is her father: "He joined our party because the Democrats in Jim Crow Alabama of 1952 would not register him to vote. The Republicans did." As in Bill Clinton's Arkansas and the rest of the South, Alabama's Democrats held all-white primaries long after the Republicans didn't.
Condoleeza Rice's story reflects how dramatically different George W.'s emphasis on unity contrasts with the divisive approach to race relations in the Democratic Party. George W., she says, realizes that we are a nation that has been "forged not from common blood but from common purpose." Her theme: "Democracy in America is a work in progress."
These are not "women's issues" women. Nor are these women necessarily prominent because they are women. They bring the toughness of their expertise to the party. Laura Bush told the convention that she could envision a woman as president, some day, but not today. The first woman will, like Margaret Thatcher in Britain, make it to the top with intellectual rigor and political acumen as a solid candidate and not as a woman candidate. That's not the standard Walter Mondale used in choosing Geraldine Ferarro in 1984.
Eleanor Clift and Tom Brazaitis, in their book, "Madame President: Shattering the Last Glass Ceiling," argue that ambitious women are subject to a double-standard, that everything they do is measured against sex-specific criteria. Hence, a combative woman is "unfeminine," and a combative man is "tough." True enough, but it's a lot less true today. That's one of the Philadelphia stories.
John F. Kennedy said a woman president would require the wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt, the wit of Clare Boothe Luce and the compassion of Queen Victoria. How about the national security acumen of Condoleeza Rice, the political smarts of Elizabeth Dole and the intellectual grasp of social and economic issues of Jennifer Dunn?
We've come a long way, baby.

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