Laura Bush: therapist in chief: she’s a pillow away from George W. Here, we find out what’s behind this first lady—the woman who calms and steadies her husband and, in turn, an entire nation

Laura Bush: therapist in chief: she’s a pillow away from George W. Here, we find out what’s behind this first lady—the woman who calms and steadies her husband and, in turn, an entire nation – Cover Story

Lybi Ma

VISITS TO THE WHITE House can be filled with surprises. After security shakes me down to my toes, the waiting room is a welcome relief. While there, a side door opens and in comes a herd of cowboys sporting rugged hats, leather boots and wide handlebar mustaches that would put Mark Twain to shame. Their dusty blue work shirts are damp from the 90-degree heat.

“Are you a traveling ensemble?” I inquire.

“You can call us thaaat,” replies one handsome fellow with an unending drawl. “We’re coooks.”

And so they were.

That day, the White House hosted a congressional barbecue, and the chefs were flown in from Aberdeen, Texas. What struck me most, though, was their friendly, easy attitude.

Is that a Texas trademark?

Friendly, easy–attributes that Laura Bush exudes as well. In fact, like the Aberdeen ensemble, there is nothing phony about her. She is almost like a next-door neighbor, inviting you in for iced tea. There is no need to feel nervous or jittery; she is too calm for that.

After September 11, it was clear that the nation needed a steady first lady. A therapist in chief, if you will. It’s interesting to note why the public has relied on her so. Critics argue that the current president does not instill great confidence, while the first lady evidently does. Her approval rating is 69 percent at the moment. In these strange times, she has steadied her husband and, in turn, a nation.

Longtime friend and public-health administrator Penny Royall agrees that Laura Bush has done just that. “She has a calming influence on him; she has brought him a steady peace.” But Mrs. Bush, in her modest tone, is quick to downplay her role, saying instead that he steadies her.

No matter how you look at it, the nation has benefited from her soothing nature. Indeed, September 11 was a turning point for Mrs. Bush. Since then, the public has been thrilled to see her coming to the fore. There she was on “Larry King” and “Meet the Press,” and her Radio Free Europe address and opinions about women’s rights in Afghanistan have been well reported. Her “change” has been called a “fabulous transformation” of sorts by the media.

Yet those who know her feel she’s always been this way. Childhood friend Regan Gammon, who was a Brownie with Mrs. Bush back in third grade, doesn’t understand what the big deal is. Mrs. Bush may be more vocal, but she’s pretty much the same person. “I don’t think there has been any kind of transformation. She is exactly who she has always been,” says Gammon. “And I think I’d know if there had been some sort of transformation.”

The Education of Laura Bush

Even early in her tenure, the first lady came out with myriad initiatives to promote such causes as literacy and early-childhood development. When, in 2001, she introduced her guide for parents on identifying quality early-reading programs, the media seemed surprised. As the Baltimore Sun wrote, “If one of the first documents to be released in the first lady Laura Bush’s education initiative is any indication, we’re in for more substance than many thought possible.”

Commerce secretary Don Evans, who has known Mrs. Bush for more than three decades, notes how absurd this is: “That kind of comment just shows you that there is a lack of knowledge. As her librarian background might indicate, she is extremely bright and well read.”

A Matter of Substance

Gammon recalls how back when she was first lady of Texas, Mrs. Bush organized a little book festival. She pulled together authors, government officials, media reps and others, hosted meetings and introduced key players. She might have had other people organize it and remained an honorary chair, but “that wasn’t the way it was at all,” says Gammon. “She was very hands-on.” The Texas Book Festival is now in its sixth year, and it has raised more than one million dollars for Texas libraries.

Mrs. Bush is also promoting the betterment of women’s and children’s lives in Afghanistan. One program currently well under way involves securing funds to train and provide wages to seamstresses who make uniforms for young girls now attending school there. In addition, she has been in contact with Queen Rania of Jordan, a former banker who has some very practical ideas about microfinancing small businesses run by women in the Middle East.

After her Radio Free Europe address, Mrs. Bush was stopped at the cosmetics counter of a department store in Austin, Texas. Women came forward in appreciation. “Thank you for your defense of women in Afghanistan,” commented one store clerk. Mrs. Bush says that she had “no idea how many people heard [her radio appearance] and how many people were concerned about women in Afghanistan.”

Heart is Where the Home Is

Transformation or not, her most important role is being the wife of the most powerful man in the world. In this regard, much has been written about the first couple. The press, for example, has created a good deal of hoopla over their opposite natures: He is the party boy; she is studious. That may be true to some extent, according to friends, but as Royall points out, the Bushes have much in common. “They both come from similar backgrounds: loving families with strong marriages. They share the same values–family, faith, doing good things for others. They are much more alike than different.”

That may be one reason why they have an apparently rock-solid relationship. Even to the public, this first couple appears to be in love. With half of U.S. marriages ending in divorce, the Bush’s longevity is certainly admirable. But are they pulling something over on the American public? According to friends, the president and first lady are indeed the real thing. “They are totally in love,” says Evans. “They tease, have fun with and joke with each other. They are real, sincere and committed.”

Certainly, a good relationship requires considerable give and take. Many credit Mrs. Bush for putting a stop to the president’s former drinking habits. But on countless occasions, she has downplayed her influence, stating that the credit goes to his own discipline. When it comes to these very personal matters, the first lady is fiercely private.

Family certainly does come first. She doesn’t even want her twin daughters photographed, which makes sense for security reasons. Why plaster the girls’ faces everywhere? “They did not choose to be in the limelight, they just want to be normal kids,” Gammon says. “They’ve had their problems here and there, but they’re just normal girls.”

While it may be a little hard for a political dynasty to play hide-and-seek from the collective glare, this first lady seems to know how to balance the many sides of her very public and private lives. It’s safe to say that as the nation pines for her, we will be hearing more and more from therapist in chief Laura Bush.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group