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What a Difference a Year Makes

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Like so many couples, they turned for comfort to tradition and family. On Christmas Eve they served tortillas and tamales — standard holiday fare in Laura Bush’s family for years. The next day, Mrs. Bush and the President were joined by more than 20 members of the extended clan for a feast and bowling at Camp David. Then, on Dec. 26, the First Family traveled to their ranch in Crawford, Texas, where they took long walks, caught up on their reading and hosted a New Year’s Eve dinner party for a half dozen of their closest friends. They were, in a sense, setting the example they urged the nation to follow: They had found a way to carry on.

Yet there is still ample evidence that life for them — and the nation — has undergone a profound change. Back in Washington, D.C., Secret Service snipers now occupy the roof of their White House home and bomb-sniffing dogs patrol its grounds. And as an added security precaution not seen since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, the popular White House tours have been discontinued for the foreseeable future. As the First Lady recently told a group of reporters, “It’s lonely and sort of quiet in there.”

Just a year ago, when her husband took office after the most controversial election in U.S. history, this woman who treasures her privacy was looking forward to keeping a comfortably low profile. In fact, in her first few months, she kept largely out of the public eye, decorating the house on the family’s 1,583-acre ranch, unwinding with longtime girlfriends at the White House and promoting her pet project of raising the literacy level of the nation’s children. But virtually from the moment that the first hijacked plane crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 55-year-old Laura Bush of Midland, Texas, only child, former school librarian and teacher, homemaker and devoted mother, faced a historic task: She has been asked to help comfort a nation that has suffered its most lethal and emotionally devastating attack ever, as well as preside over the White House during a worldwide war on terrorism that threatens to last for years. And in the midst of it all, she must provide a source of strength to the man at the helm. “Since Sept. 11 I’ve had the opportunity, or maybe I should say the responsibility, to be steady for our country — and for my husband,” she acknowledged softly on Larry King Live.

Indeed, friends say that she and the President have come to rely on each other as never before. “George Bush depends on Laura for friendship, calmness, security and sustenance, and that private dynamic is so much more important than what she does publicly,” says an acquaintance, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. “It’s got to be enormously stressful sending young men and women to fight this complicated war, and only those who know them up close understand how he draws strength from her.” Adds Kati Marton, author of Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages that Shaped Our Recent History: “No man needs a partner more than a President in a time of crisis. And for George Bush, Laura is his rock.”

Her transformation began on a bright September morning when she was scheduled to make her speaking debut before Congress to discuss early childhood learning before Ted Kennedy’s Senate education committee. Instead, as news of the disasters in New York City and at the Pentagon came crackling over a security radio, she found herself being swept from the Hill to an undisclosed location by a detail of Secret Service agents. In her public duties since, Laura has proved a calming, self-possessed presence at memorials, vigils and the WTC site itself, where she feels there should be a lasting memorial erected. “She told us that the toughest part was when they went to the hospital,” says a Texas friend, referring to the First Couple’s visit to the burn unit of the Washington Hospital Center to comfort victims of the Pentagon attack. “It made her so sad seeing those guys wrapped up like mummies, trying to salute the Commander in Chief.”

At other times, when simple grace under pressure is called for, she has provided that too. At a Dec. 3 White House Christmas party for 1,100 congressional members and their families, Laura, in a red strapless gown, descended a spiral staircase and entered the East Room with her husband to the strains of “Hail to the Chief.” She looked at him adoringly as they box-stepped around the dance floor to “Please Come Home for Christmas” and then smiled her way through 2 1/2 hours of posing for pictures with every legislator and family member. At the end of what would have been a grueling event for even a veteran campaigner, “she looked just as fresh as when she stepped into the ballroom,” says James Cruz, leader of Rotel & the Hot Tomatoes, one of the Bushes’ favorite Austin bands, which provided the night’s music. “Eyes still twinkling, genuinely delighted, still 100 percent energy.”

Still, despite the strength of her public performance, at least one political analyst finds the First Lady something of a cipher. “I don’t have a clue who she is or what she believes,” says Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank. “I don’t know if she has any views about politics or public affairs. I don’t know what she thinks.” Yet for the most part, observers give her raves. “An A plus,” says veteran Washington journalist Sally Quinn. “It hasn’t been about ‘Look at me. Look at me.’ She’s cared about the country, the American people and what she can do to help.”

Of course, few are privy to what goes on behind the closed doors upstairs in the White House’s private living quarters. “I’m sure this has been an emotional time,” says one of Laura’s many girlfriends since childhood. Even in public, she adds, the nature of the couple’s close bond is obvious. “Those of us who have known them over the years can look at them and see they are communicating, even when they aren’t talking. You see them together, and it’s like they are reading each other’s minds.”

For a woman who often said that she had every intention of staying out of her husband’s work, Laura has, by all appearances, been playing a far more active role in it. In an interview with Barbara Walters broadcast Dec. 5, she admitted that she and George talk privately about Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian question. And on Sept. 17, when Bush demanded the delivery of Osama bin Laden “dead or alive,” Laura, thinking the remark made him sound hotheaded, sidled up with her gentle version of a reprimand: “Bushie,” she said, using a familiar nickname, “you gonna git ‘im?”

“I used to witness that kind of thing when Lyndon Johnson was upset or about to yell,” says Goodwin of Lady Bird Johnson, named by Laura as one of her favorite role models among former First Ladies. “Lady Bird could put a hand on his knee and say, ‘You don’t mean that.’ She would soothe him in a way that no one else could. Mrs. Bush is just like Lady Bird. She has a huge impact.”

Bush himself recently noted that, contrary to popular opinion, his wife is no shrinking violet. “She doesn’t get mad, she gets pointed,” he told Newsweek. “If I do something she thinks needs to be toned down . . . she’ll tell me.” It’s a dynamic that dates back to the couple’s earliest days, says one longtime friend of Laura’s. “George has always valued Laura’s West Texas common sense. She’s always been so grounded, and that attracted him to her in their dating days.” Veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas, referring to the period earlier in their marriage when Laura’s influence stopped her husband’s proclivity for partying, puts an even sharper point on the observation: “She put her foot down and said, ‘Jim Beam or me,’ and got him to stop drinking. And she’s been a force in his life ever since. Clearly he listens to what she says.”

— SUSAN SCHINDEHETTE
— JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington, D.C., LAUREL BRUBAKER CALKINS and GABRIELLE COSGRIFF in Houston, CHRIS COATS in Dallas, ANNE LANG in Austin, MICHAEL HAEDERLE in El Paso and LORI ROZSA in Boca Grande, Fla.