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Now making her bow: The un-Hillary

( -- There is nothing about Laura Bush that brings to mind that other political wife -- the one whose name draws hisses from the generally well-mannered crowds in Philadelphia and whose candidacy for the U.S. Senate is the object of convention-wide derision.

Just as George W. Bush's campaign strategists take great pains to portray his vision for America as a 180-degree departure from that of Bill Clinton, Laura Bush's public image is a careful response to a widespread distaste (and for many at this week's GOP convention, that's a very polite way of putting it) for Hillary Clinton. And accidentally or not, the GOP has found the perfect antidote to that weariness: Laura Bush.

She is, to put it quite simply, the anti-Hillary. She comes across as bright but unthreatening -- a reluctant but dependable political wife who's dedicated to her husband's campaign simply because she loves him, and not, as she herself is quick to point out, because she's interested in the spotlight. Bush himself loves to remind voters of his wife's appealing reticence. The story of his proposal, and Laura's response, has already become a stump speech chestnut: "I asked her to marry me," he'll tell a cheering crowd, "and she said, 'Yes. But only if you promise me that I'll never have to make a campaign speech.'"

You have to wonder how serious she was. The man she was promising to marry, after all, was poised to inherit a powerful political legacy. But the story, as Bush tells it, is a comforting tale; it assures everyone listening that a Bush presidency will not be a policy partnership.

Laura Bush would be, in many ways, a return to the traditional first lady cast: She's an outspoken advocate for literacy, a politically neutral cause that was also championed by her mother-in-law.

Monday night, before her keynote speech at the convention (so much for that prenuptial agreement), Bush made the rounds of the networks, granting each evening news team an interview. And her responses pointed to a very different persona than what we've seen so far. By her own testimony, she's hardly the shrinking violet many in the media have portrayed her to be; she called her marriage to George W. a "partnership" and stressed her independence. She also offered a rebuttal to the well-worn rumor that she gave her husband the ultimatum that ended his career as a carousing, often heavy drinker. (When questioned about this last bit of speculation, her denial rang the first false note of the evening: She laughed it off, saying, "No, no. I never threatened him. We've never had any trouble in our marriage").

The interviews yielded a few other peeks at Bush's personal politics, but even as she hinted at private convictions, her allegiance to her husband's policy won out. Bush neatly dodged a question about her position on abortion by NBC's Lisa Myers, saying, "I agree with George that we ought to do everything we can to reduce the number of abortions." Myers replied, "It sounds like you agree with your mother-in-law," referring to Barbara Bush's quiet pro-choice stance. "Now, that's what you said, Lisa," Bush responded, chuckling. "Not me. No, I don't want to put a label on myself." It worked for Barbara -- there's no reason it can't work for Laura.

Finally, after a string of truly dreadful musical acts and the first stage of the roll call, America got its first extended look at Laura Bush, political wife. She took the stage at the convention at 10:05, amidst a rain of confetti and storming applause, and took her place in front of a backdrop of classroom desks filled with shell-shocked kids. Visibly nervous, but smiling bravely, Bush made her way through a speech peppered with references to her husband's dedication to the Texas education system, to her (apparently idyllic) family life, and with a few nods to her in-laws. (George Sr. sat in the audience with Barbara, looking delighted). She took a few jabs at the Clinton presidency, never naming names, instead making pointed references to "restoring honor and dignity to the office." That was the biggest applause line of the night.

She did a nice job, and the audience went bananas over her. She's obviously well-loved among the GOP faithful, and she seems genuinely pleased by her husband's political ascent. By all appearances, Laura Bush is awfully good at being the wife of a presidential candidate -- a gift she may have privately hoped would never see the light of day.

Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.


Tuesday, August 1, 2000


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