How a librarian became the GOP's 'secret weapon'

To many admirers here, the first lady of Texas is the "anti-Hillary." Laura Bush is traditional, unassuming, gracious, and without any evident ambitions for her own career.

But the once-shy librarian and elementary-school teacher emerged this week on the national scene with the poise of a seasoned political professional. Indeed, some Republicans are privately calling her George W. Bush's "secret weapon."

And tonight, as she stands by her husband's side as he accepts the Republicans' formal nomination to run as their presidential standard bearer, Mrs. Bush symbolizes not only a quiet power in her own right, but also the conflicts arising from the changing role of women in America.

She loves to joke about exacting a promise from her husband that she would never have to give a political speech. But Mrs. Bush was chosen to kick off the national convention here precisely because she is a determined advocate with an agenda and a representative of a key constituency, women, without whom the Republicans cannot win the White House.

Her greatest strength in that role, many analysts say, is that she is precisely who she is. "Authentic, that's the word that comes to mind," says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. "She's not contrived or packaged, although she is a guarded person who's not willing to share many intimacies."

As the first lady in Texas, she's proven herself comfortable not only with other women, who respond to her down-to-earth demeanor, but also with farmers, county officials, and even the likes of Kinky Friedman, the comic country-western singer and novelist, many of whose lyrics cannot be reprinted in this paper.

The satirist and animal lover was taken by her "open-mindedness." Two years ago, along with raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the state's public libraries and fighting for improved early education, Bush also agreed to co-chair, with her dog, a "Bonefit" for Mr. Friedman's Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch.

"I think Laura had every chance in the world not to be involved, but she really came through," says Mr. Friedman. "She's got something that can really work with people. It's not political. It's a love of children, books, and animals."

A private, but warm, presence

Bush, without doubt, also enjoys at least some of Friedman's humor. That's part of her independent, albeit private streak. She likes to go river-rafting and bird-watching with a core of close, diverse friends. She declines to discuss her feelings about abortion and the death penalty. And while she talked about her nervousness prior to the convention, it was her unassuming confidence and warmth that won the crowd on Monday night.

It was on display during the afternoon before an almost empty hall as reporters and delegates straggled around. While technicians were adjusting the audio, podium, and light levels for her national debut, Bush practiced a few lines. When she got to where the applause should be, she smiled over the chaotic hall, reached out, and flapped her hands like she was encouraging the crowd, and said, "yea, yea, yea" in a little, girlish voice.

That unassuming nature, along with an ability to bring politics directly home, both literally and figuratively as she did several times during her speech, has helped generate an enormous amount of enthusiasm among Republican women in Philadelphia. Most don't see her as a role model, but as someone with whom they can identify.

"She's really approachable," says Jennie Grimwood from Cordova, Alaska, sporting seven-month-old Phoebe on her hip. "I can imagine running into her at the drugstore and chatting."

But Bush also elicits widely different reactions, an indication of the cultural conflict still generated by women's changing roles. Nancy Strack from Ida Grove, Iowa, relates to Bush's political evolution. Twenty years ago, Ms. Strack says she asked her husband whom to vote for and couldn't name her own congressman. Now, she's a delegate on the platform committee at her second national convention. "She's gracious and strong, but not necessarily strong willed," she says. "I like that."

But Virginia Rosa, an artist from Flowertown, Pa., respects Mrs. Bush's conservative values. "I really feel that she is all that a woman should be, that her husband really is the head of the household."

The 'brake'

But there's no question that Governor Bush relies heavily on his wife for her stability and judgment. Professor Buchanan says she plays a crucial role as a "brake" for her sometimes rambunctious spouse.

"She makes sure he acts mostly like a grown-up," he says. "He respects her greatly and takes her advice seriously."

So much so, that if her husband's elected some people believe she'll be a first lady more in the mold of another gracious, but quietly powerful first lady from Texas, Lady Bird Johnson

"They're both pretty determined women and have pretty strong feelings about things," says George Christian, President Lyndon Johnson's former press secretary. "Mrs. Johnson was a fighter, ally, and sometimes critic, and Lyndon Johnson valued her opinion. She'd give him grades - A, B, C - on his speeches. There are a lot of similarities between [her] and Laura Bush."

*Scott Baldauf in Texas contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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