Seven years ago when asked what she’d be like in her new White House role, the first lady responded earnestly, pushing back against any historic comparison. “I’ll just be Laura Bush,” she said.
Now, as her husband is wrapping up his second term, amid broad criticism of his administration and an ongoing war in Iraq, Mrs. Bush emerges not only popular in her own right, but lauded across party lines for bringing dignity back to a largely unscripted yet much-watched role.
Of late, she has earned praise as a soothing and ceremonial diplomatic force on a fractured international stage and for bringing life to issues far beyond the domestic scope of reading and literacy, where she made her early mark.
“Everybody likes Laura Bush, even people that can’t stand her husband,” says historian and author Douglas Brinkley, a professor at Rice University.
“She has been able, due to her graciousness, to bring real empathy on issues like literacy, where people find her a believable person. She doesn’t stir up animosity or resentment. Generally speaking, she has been a kind of grace note to the Bush years.”
In the past week, Mrs. Bush has weighed in as a supportive voice of reason as the presidential primary election heats up, praising her predecessor, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, for her tenacity and strength in surviving the rigors of the campaign trail. She also defended Michelle Obama, wife of presumed Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, who garnered criticism for saying that her husband’s candidacy made her proud of America for the first time in her adult life.
Mrs. Obama later clarified her remarks herself, but she found an ally in Mrs. Bush.
“I think she probably meant ‘I’m more proud,’ you know, is what she really meant,” the first lady said on “Good Morning, America.” “You have to be very careful in what you say. Everything you say is looked at and in many cases misconstrued.”
All of this reaching across the sisterhood aisle comes even as she ratchets up the volume on international concerns, particularly those facing women, where her even and measured voice in support of sensitive issues like breast cancer has forced foreign cultures to take note, observers said.
“I think that she has done a phenomenal job of addressing issues that are important in a graceful way and in a way that has had an impact on the lives of millions of women all over the world,” says Michelle Bernard, president of the Independent Women’s Forum in Washington.
“Whether with her work in Africa or Southeast Asia or in the Middle East, we have seen this first lady go out and tackle huge issues that are of grave importance to women not only at home, but abroad. With AIDS and HIV and breast cancer awareness, I think her legacy, when the history books are written, will be that she has been a graceful advocate for women’s rights and democracy-promotion through education in countries all over the world.”
High praise for a Texas-born librarian who famously told her political husband that she’d marry him only if she didn’t have to give public speeches.
Now seasoned in her role as dutiful political spouse to both a governor and president, Mrs. Bush, 61, seems comfortable talking to groups as diverse as schoolchildren, where she is fond of reading, and the White House press corps.
On May 5, she led her own news conference, appearing solo to dress down the government of Burma for its failure to embrace global humanitarian aid in the wake of a devastating typhoon.
Her message, delivered with the stern cadence of a secretary of state while wearing a crisp pantsuit and tawny lipstick, was followed up warmly as she changed gears to talk with reporters about her daughter Jenna’s upcoming wedding.
“I don’t want to call her a steel magnolia, because it’s not really that,” observes Wilfred McClay, a humanities professor at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, who spoke at a White House event organized by the first lady earlier this year.
“But she has gone from strength to strength” in the largely undefined role of first lady, he said.
“There has been a shift from the first term,” Mr. McClay observes of Mrs. Bush’s broadening her issues to international concerns that included a surprise visit last weekend to Afghanistan, her third trip to the war-torn country.
“In the second term, she has become more involved and engaged in larger political and particularly international humanitarian issues. She has really been effective,” Mr. McClay said. “What she has done for the unofficial office of the first lady is what [Ronald] Reagan did for the presidency. He refuted any kind of negative talk by his example.”
Even as anti-U.S. sentiment abroad has grown as the war continues, Mrs. Bush’s visibility has cast her as an able surrogate, says Lisa De Pasquale, director of the Conservative Political Action Conference at the American Conservative Union.
“When people talk about what is the view of America from foreigners, she is a good one to send out there as an ambassador. I think people take her at her word, and it doesn’t come off as insincere,” Miss De Pasquale says.
“Certainly, when she and Jenna and Barbara go out there and do visits to foreign nations, they are always well-received. There are positive feelings toward the administration and toward America because of her,” she said. “Mrs. Bush doesn’t have to go to those places. It’s not fun. I think because she is reaching out, people in those countries do feel like they are on our radar, and we do care about humanitarian efforts.”
At home, Mr. McClay says that many feel Mrs. Bush restored a certain dignity to her post. She was the anti-Hillary, he said, and as first lady benefited from Mrs. Clinton’s less traditional take on the office.
“It’s not that Hillary Clinton was just an unpopular and by all accounts probably a rather difficult person who didn’t really feel comfortable in the role,” Mr. McClay said. “But Mrs. Bush has shown how the first lady can be a nonpolarizing figure, who is yes, a traditional wife and mother in some ways, but who also has a very powerful role.
“She was comfortable, but she was also substantive.”
As the crush of negative public opinion - and outrage about the ongoing war in Iraq - continues, Mrs. Bush, at the closing months of her husband’s term remains still popular but also dipping somewhat as attention refocuses on a new administration.
While her poll numbers were stratospheric a few years ago, with a more than 70 percent approval rating in 2004, a Pew Research Center survey from January found that her favorability numbers had dropped off to 54 percent, still far higher than any of her husband’s recent ratings.
In Texas, however, where she follows in the still-beloved footsteps of Lady Bird Johnson and carries a political pedigree of sorts with her mother-in-law Barbara Bush, Laura Bush retains a rock solid bipartisan popularity, Mr. Brinkley says.
She is lauded and respected for her work in founding the Texas Book Festival and is known for maintaining long-standing friendships with Democrats. Likely, he said, she will much enjoy her return to Dallas and her like-minded friends, where she is expected to take a larger role in promoting the national parks after her husband leaves office.
Her legacy, he added, “is concrete and will continue to grow.”