Thursday, August 19, 2004

DENVER — First lady Laura Bush considers much of the national media biased against Republicans, but she empathizes with Democrat Teresa Heinz Kerry, who told a journalist to “shove it.”

During an interview with The Washington Times, Mrs. Bush laughed incredulously when asked whether the press was fair and impartial in its coverage of a conservative such as President Bush. Her press secretary, Gordon Johndroe, laughed even more heartily.

“I mean, I think it’s obvious in some parts of the media — some newspapers, some television networks — that there’s a bias,” she said late Tuesday. “Or an agenda — maybe I should say an agenda.”

The first lady said she has resigned herself to the reality that conservatives seeking the presidency must work harder than liberals in order to compensate for the liberal bias of the press.

That theory has been confirmed by influential journalists themselves. For example, Newsweek Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas recently acknowledged that the press wants Sen. John Kerry to win and thinks that is responsible for 15 percent of his support. ABC News political director Mark Halperin mused whether the press would root for the Massachusetts Democrat as vigorously as it did for Bill Clinton in 1992.

Although Mr. Kerry is ranked by National Journal magazine as the most liberal member of the Senate, Mrs. Bush said she could relate to his wife, Teresa, telling a journalist to “shove it” just before the Democratic National Convention in Boston last month.

“I empathized with her, because she and I really are sort of in the same club,” she said. “We’re the ones who know what it’s like for our husbands to run for president.”

Mrs. Bush was asked whether she has ever felt the impulse to give a journalist a piece of her mind.

“Sure, but so far I haven’t,” she said with a smile. “I’m much more practiced, frankly, because my husband’s been president for four years.”

She also took the press to task for perpetuating simplistic misperceptions about herself and her husband. She lamented that she is constantly portrayed as the “traditional” first lady and that the president is portrayed as bellicose and unyielding.

“Journalists try to put people in a box — it’s easier,” she said. “People are just a lot more complicated than that.”

Yet she acknowledged that the press wasn’t entirely to blame for her husband’s tough-guy image.

“I think what George hasn’t been able to show very well because of the circumstances of his presidency — with September 11th and the war — is the soft side that he has,” she said. “He’s very loving and compassionate and really sweet.”

She added: “He is a tough-talking guy, but there is a soft side to him that I don’t think people have gotten to see.”

The president’s re-election campaign strategists consider the first lady their not-so-secret weapon — able to portray her husband in a more human light and therefore help close the “gender gap” — and have employed her extensively in TV ads and on the campaign trail.

Mrs. Bush intends to barnstorm through 20 states before the election. During recent forays on the campaign trail, she has drawn enthusiastic crowds.

“She’s very real,” said Terrie Desloge of suburban St. Louis, who met Mrs. Bush during a campaign stop on Tuesday. “I think she and her husband make a good team. Opposites attract.”

In recent weeks, the first lady has ventured into debates over thorny public-policy issues. She defended her husband’s decision to limit federal funding of stem-cell research, which has rekindled interest in whether she opposes abortion.

Asked whether she believes, like her husband and Mr. Kerry, that life begins at conception, Mrs. Bush said “sure” and went on to say that she supports the president’s position on abortion. Mr. Bush is staunchly pro-life.

Asked whether she is pro-life, Mrs. Bush said, “Yes, I think abortion should be rare.”

The first lady said her 22-year-old twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, would not make speeches at the Republican National Convention, which begins Aug. 30 in New York City. She is aware of the constant comparisons to Mr. Kerry’s daughters, Alexandra, 30, and Vanessa, 27, who spoke at the Democratic convention.

“Our girls are different from them,” Mrs. Bush explained. “They’re younger than they are; they’re just out of college; they’re very new to the campaign trail.”

Until now, Mr. and Mrs. Bush successfully have shielded their daughters from the glare of the media spotlight. The first lady pointed out that they were born when their grandfather was vice president.

“We wanted them to be able to live as normal a life as possible, to get in trouble if they’d get in trouble,” she said. “Obviously, we didn’t want them to get into trouble, but we wanted them to not always feel the pressure from their peers of having their parents in the public eye.”

The first lady was asked whether she would be devastated if her husband lost.

“Yes, of course,” she said. “Would we still have a life? Sure. Would we have a good life? Sure.”

Would Americans survive a Kerry presidency?

“They’ll do a lot better,” she said, smiling ruefully, “with a Bush re-election.”

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