A return to quiet first-lady tradition

If we've learned anything about Laura Bush in the first six months, it's she's not one to seek the spotlight.

Ever since inauguration, Washington has been waiting for the first lady to take the stage. But early on, she disappeared from town, throwing herself into decorating the first couple's new Texas ranch. Months passed, with only occasional invitations to the press - for an April garden tour at a Washington estate, or a few out-of-town forays to promote educational causes.

When it was suggested that last month's European tour might be her international debut, she replied: "Well, I'll have to say I was not thinking of it as an entrance onto the world stage, but I'm excited."

Next to Bess Truman, who retreated to her hometown of Independence, Mo., in the summers, Mrs. Bush is being described as the lowest-profile first lady of the modern presidency.

In the way that Mrs. Truman was the polar opposite of her predecessor, the high-powered Eleanor Roosevelt, so is this former librarian the anti-Hillary.

No quickie biographies have been written about her. Neither does she head a controversial presidential task force, or dash from country to country on her own political crusade. Instead of healthcare and conspiracies, she prefers to talk about gardening, her pets, and her favorite issues: teaching and reading.

"I expected a retreat from Mrs. Clinton, but not as much as it has turned out to be," says Lewis Gould, editor of "American First Ladies." Laura Bush, he says, is fulfilling the traditional role of first lady: supporting her husband and advocating a politically safe cause. He adds that "a substantial portion of the American population is comfortable with that."

Nearly two-thirds of Americans like the new first lady, a new poll finds. She's not nearly as divisive as her predecessor, the survey shows, although she hasn't yet made a strong impression. "There's a pretty large portion of people who don't know much about her," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, which conducted the poll.

That may change as Mrs. Bush moves ahead with her education agenda. Today, she hosts a two-day summit in Washington, bringing together more than 350 experts in early childhood development - a replica of a summit she held in Texas.

In September, she'll recreate another Texas success - a book fair - this one hosted by the Library of Congress. In October, she'll substitute-teach in classrooms, in an effort to bring attention to the teacher shortage in the country.

While the Washington media may pay more attention to events happening in their own backyard, don't expect the heavier coverage to reveal that much about the first lady herself.

When she swung down to Fort Jackson, S.C., in May, Mrs. Bush was the main attraction as far as the crowd was concerned, but she did nothing to feed that image. Dressed in a sage-colored pantsuit that seemed to blend in with the white pines of the base, she appeared hardly more than a messenger for her troops-to-teachers program.

Delivering her trademark wave - imagine someone screwing in a lightbulb - she then read from her text and worked the crowd for a few minutes. She didn't linger long. She didn't range far into the sea of fatigues, kids, and parents, who were eager to shake hands. She didn't grant any interviews.

"She's not in need of a spotlight," says Penne Korth, a longtime friend of Mrs. Bush and the senior Bushes. "She has her things, like education and books and children, and she goes quietly about doing very good work without the need for applause and headlines."

It's not as if the first lady is completely media averse. She's granted dozens of interviews since moving into the White House. She's even appeared in a shimmering crimson Oscar de la Renta in Vogue, as well as in Harper's Bazaar and O, the Oprah magazine.

But while she's forthcoming, she's not particularly revealing. We know, for instance, that she's redecorated two White House rooms for her twin daughters with "pretty fabric." While their drinking episode is completely off limits to discussion, their mother mentioned recently that one of her girls is interested in teaching.

She's talked about other changes at the White House: bringing Ulysses Grant's desk out of storage for her husband and the discontinuation of the modern sculpture garden - a Clinton creation whose funding has run out.

We know she works out regularly in the White House gym, usually with her sister-in-law, and that the residence kitchen now dishes up Tex-Mex cuisine. Her morning begins at 5:30 a.m., when her husband brings her coffee in bed - he brews it himself - and they read the papers before he steps over to the West Wing for work at 7 a.m.

On education, Mrs. Bush's policy director works closely with her husband's. "There's a lot of coordination between us," says White House domestic policy adviser Margaret La Montagne, who describes the first lady's interest in education as "a very nice synergy" with the president's agenda.

And in another coordination of a highly informal kind, the first lady and Lynne Cheney trade historical novels.

In interviews, the nation's first reader says she doesn't talk much policy with the president. "George and I mainly talk about what we're going to do over the weekend, or funny things our animals did. And we talk about our girls a lot, even though we don't get to see them enough," she told CNN's Larry King.

One of her chief preoccupations is making sure the president gets to relax with family and friends, and they are gone most weekends - either at Camp David or their sprawling ranch in Crawford, Texas. She has been described as the ballast in the relationship, the steady force that got him to stop drinking and serves as his reality check. Steadiness, in fact, seems to be at the core of this practical woman. She is still great friends with a girl she met in her Brownie troop. And for 15 years, she's taken a weeklong holiday with a group of women friends. This year, it was a hiking trip in Yosemite Park.

Myra Gutin, who is writing a biography of Barbara Bush, laments the low profile of Laura Bush as a throwback to tradition, claiming she is missing "an opportunity" to really advance an issue. While she's found a popular theme in education "there's no sustained activity," Ms. Gutin says.

This is not a view shared in the first lady's office. "I wouldn't say she's low-profile," says Ashleigh Adams, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Bush. "She's very focused on issues most important to her."

One of those issues - while not front page news - has the numbers to prove her impact. Since Mrs. Bush started visiting military bases to encourage servicemen to become teachers when they retire from the service, inquiries into the program have quadrupled, the Defense Department says. "You have no idea what that woman has done to me," says a laughing Veronica Whetsell, who runs Troops-to-Teachers in South Carolina. "I'm just overwhelmed. So many people are calling and making reference to her."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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