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Inside Politics

First lady shakes up White House staff

Changes point to new approach for husband's second term

By Kelly Wallace
CNN


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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Behind the scenes, first lady Laura Bush is making big changes for the next four years.

In the past two months, Mrs. Bush has hired a new social secretary and chief of staff -- and fired chef Walter Scheib III, who had been at the White House for 11 years.

"We don't usually think of Laura Bush as firing anybody," said Ann Gerhart, a political reporter for The Washington Post's style section. "She is just as loyal as everybody else in the Bush family. So I think it's very unusual."

Was it a clash of personalities or something else?

Gerhart broke the story of Scheib's departure in early February.

"He has said that Mrs. Bush wanted to set her own style, and he had tried to adapt and wasn't able to do that, so she is moving on," Gerhart told CNN.

Longtime Washington style expert Sally Quinn has another perspective.

"I suspect she and the chef did not see eye-to-eye, and that is the kind of thing that happens," Quinn said. "So much of this is chemistry and personality. So I am sure they will get another chef and I am sure the food will be fine."

Laura Bush's spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, would only say, "This was a good opportunity for Walter to pursue other opportunities."

What's also at work, Washington observers say, is a first lady more comfortable at the start of her husband's second term and not having to worry about another election.

"She, I'm sure, is partially responsible for him being re-elected, and I think that she knows that," Quinn said. "And I think that has given her an enormous amount of confidence."

And with that confidence comes word the first lady and President Bush will be putting on their dancing shoes a whole lot more in the second term. In fact, on Valentine's Day, the Bushes hosted a black-tie dinner for 60 guests.

"Perhaps this is how she is spending her capital," Gerhart said, using a term also employed by President Bush, who has vowed to spend the "political capital" he earned in the 2004 election.

Gerhart added: "She is saying, 'Look, I know you don't want to stay up very late but darn it, every once in a while, I want to have some fun people around, a little music, a little dancing, a little wine, a little more fun at night.' And he says, 'OK dear.' "

During their first four years, the Bushes hosted just four state dinners. Former President Bush and first lady Barbara Bush hosted four in their first six months in the White House.

"I would say I think it's about time," said Quinn. "People have a tendency to think that entertaining in Washington politically and diplomatically is frivolous, but it is not. It is part of the work."

As Mrs. Bush takes on her first official policy role with her husband's administration -- overseeing a new $150 million program to help troubled boys -- there is something else observers notice: The first lady has become more candid with the news media.

In a recent interview on ABC's "Good Morning America," she said her daughter Jenna's reported new companion "is not a serious boyfriend." She later joked with a group of magazine reporters that perhaps she was being "a little too candid," according to the Hotline, the National Journal's daily political report.

Gerhart says it is no surprise that Mrs. Bush has become more at ease with reporters.

"She does not have to help that man get elected again, and that is very liberating," Gerhart said. "All first ladies have suffered under that. You know, the American people have all these expectations they voice on the first lady, in which she is supposed to be substantive, but not too substantive."

Gerhart said it is also a sign that Mrs. Bush feels she can show more of her own personality. "She is really not that guarded of a person in private, and I think she is more comfortable letting the public see some of that," Gerhart added.

The first lady, in a recent interview with CNN's Candy Crowley, said, "My role hasn't changed as much as I have changed and just become much more comfortable in this job that I have."

The first lady's words and actions are also perhaps a reflection of her sky-high approval ratings with 85 percent saying they approve of the job she is doing, according to a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll.

"Looking at the numbers, she seems to be a very popular person, with good cause," said Mrs. Bush's spokesman.


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