A Quick Chat With the Silent Shelley Buchanan

SHE'S the petite blonde with the round face and broad smile - often the only woman on stage with presidential candidate Pat Buchanan among a sea of men. And she never says a word.

Some Buchanan supporters say they wish Shelley Buchanan, the conservative commentator's wife, would do some public speaking. She might put a softer edge on some of Mr. Buchanan's hard-edged rhetoric and attract more women to the cause. But being front and center is just not what Mrs. Buchanan is about.

Unlike the talkative first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, a lawyer and children's activist, and Sen. Bob Dole's equally loquacious wife, Elizabeth - who comes with her own A-list resume of cabinet posts and the American Red Cross presidency - Shelley Buchanan has made a career of quietly supporting the efforts of others. She has worked for Richard Nixon, among others, and then, for the last 24 years, as her husband's administrative assistant.

''I'd probably be a more traditional first lady,'' says Mrs. Buchanan, speaking in an impromptu interview in the kitchen of a function hall in Hartville, Ohio, near Akron, just after a speech by her husband. But, she quickly adds, ''we've got a way to go before we get to that.''

If she did become first lady, though, she says, her special focus would be on the elderly. ''I have a very strong interest in senior citizens, because I have a 95-year-old mother and for 20-plus years I've been through every stage since she's been widowed,'' Mrs. Buchanan says.

While many a political wife has learned to loathe the campaign trail, Mrs. Buchanan betrays no hint of displeasure, even the second time around. It's been ''a wonderful year and two months,'' she says.

Any surprises? ''The very, very strong right-to-life movement in this country, much more than we've seen,'' she says. Also, ''there's a tremendous concern for education. In every single state people are up in arms about children, and it's really come home to us.''

Mrs. Buchanan declines to reveal the nature of her input in the campaign. ''We have a very small staff, a very small team, we all have input,'' she says, noting that the large Buchanan clan is never at a loss for words.

She credits her sister-in-law, Bay Buchanan, for pulling off a national campaign on such modest funds. ''We husband the money very carefully,'' says Mrs. Buchanan. ''Bay Buchanan runs it like a general. There wouldn't be a campaign if it weren't for Bay.''

Life in the White House wouldn't surprise her, though, she says. She worked there for six years, before she married Pat. (They met in 1967 in New York at Mr. Nixon's law office.)

Does she have any sympathy for Mrs. Clinton and her travails in the public spotlight? Mrs. Buchanan grins broadly and utters not a sound, drawing her finger across her lips as if to zip them shut. End of discussion.

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