Her husband hadn’t even taken the oath of office and Laura Bush was faced with the reality that her life had taken a turn that even she probably had not fully visualized.
Here she was, about to become first lady of the land, about to become part and parcel of the history of this country and she was faced with tabloid harassment concerning her two daughters.
In addition, an impending TV series was beginning production which would feature the first daughters as — well, how shall we say it in the current vernacular; let’s not. We’ll just say that the planned portrayal would not be of two ladies. Let’s just say that the reported boast of one of the producers was that the show would be “barely legal.” I think you can get the drift.
Never mind that in several interviews, both Laura and George W. Bush have said that while media scrutiny of them is to be expected, their two daughters are off limits. Never mind that when Mr. Bush spoke of this to Barbara Walters on ABC, he said it with the strength of a father who would tolerate no infringement of that line of privacy.
Never mind that from Day 1, the media gave Chelsea Clinton every measure of protection the Clintons asked. Good for them for that; would that the same be done for the Bush family. But it will not be — you can bank on it — and for one reason only. George W. Bush is a Republican and Bill Clinton isn’t.
But it’s different for the first lady, isn’t it? After all, she has the title because she is the woman married to the man elected president of the United States of America. It really doesn’t matter who she is. She is it because of the man she decided to spend her life with. She gets the title, the honors, the duties and the acclaim simply because of that and the fact that he got elected. She becomes part of the history of this country with her name in the history books.
Being first lady is nice, but there is a price to be paid. Her life and that of her family become an open book and privacy becomes a condition to be sought and protected. A media ravenous for every morsel of information digs and scrapes into all the family foibles and failures, successes and accomplishments. Everything becomes fair game regardless of whether it’s true or rational or accurate. Just as long as it sounds juicy and “inside,” the media will pounce and print and deal with the consequences later.
The husband was the one elected, whose life was drawn through the meat grinder of political scrutiny — nary a stone left unturned as every word, action and belief was scrutinized in the never-ending search for a reason to denounce. If he made it and was declared victor, the wife and family become part of the package presented to the country and the world. Mr. President. The first lady. The first family.
The funny part of all of this is that the “job” of first lady isn’t a job at all. There is no “job description” and there are no specific duties.
In the traditional view, the first lady acts as hostess for White House/presidential events and when she travels with the President on his official duties, she represents the country. But beyond that, the role depends on the women in that position. Boy, has Laura Bush got a challenge facing her!
Look at what preceded her. Hillary Clinton turned the role upside down. Not only did she set up her own office and get deeply involved in policy issues but she told the country bluntly that when her husband got elected, we got not one, but two. To hear Hillary tell it, it wasn’t a Bill Clinton presidency but the Bill and Hill Show — and what a show it was.
Comedy. Tragedy. Fiction. Real life. Detective story. Crime story. Spy story. Romance. Betrayal. Soap opera. High drama. Financial scandal. Political scandal. Criminal accusations. Impeachment. The list could be endless — it was certainly not a traditional presidency and one reason was that Hillary was connected to every one of the scenarios.
Couched between World War II and Hillary, America got used to a different sort of first lady. Think back to Eleanor Roosevelt, who had her own personal marital and political problems. In her own way, and perhaps to compensate for the personal, she developed her own public persona, but there was never any question that her husband was the president.
Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower were the wives who generally stayed out of politics. For the most part, they stayed out of photographs, and the public knew them mostly as images of black and white, lacking humanity and humor. It is to the media’s discredit that the American public never really knew them as real people.
The advent of the television president brought with it the television first lady and Jacqueline Kennedy created a role never seen before. She was young, glamorous, stylish,
traveled, educated and mysterious. Even with media pressure, she kept a measure of privacy although we now know that the press protected her randy husband from having his sexual escapades on the front pages. Bill Clinton should have been so lucky!
Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter all had their first lady projects and all received media scrutiny for their fashion taste or lack thereof. Nancy Reagan brought high fashion back to the scene but took heat for it because she was a Republican. Barbara Bush took heat because she knew who she was and didn’t care a fig for high fashion. If you’re married to the first guy, and he’s in the GOP — duck, because you’re a target.
And Hillary. No fashion plate to begin with, and, over eight years, she tried every single style, color and silhouette. It’s amazing what money, time, expert assistance, nips and tucks and stitches and lines and blush and concealer can do for an aspiring senator.
Now Laura Bush is on the scene. She is fresh to the role, but already the gossip mavens are lining up to criticize her. She is too preppy, too staid. Ohmigod, her hair is all one color! She’s neat (what a back-handed compliment that is!).
I’ll tell you what I think. Laura Bush is a knockout. She is a gorgeous, real woman with a real woman’s figure which she is not loath to show. No shrinking violet would ever have chosen a red, form-fitting inaugural gown. She has a face filled with graciousness and love and smiling eyes.
When I see her and her husband together, I see that they reflect the steadfastness of the vows they took which held them together through good times and bad. And they survived. Surely, if we need heroes and role models for our children, we could do no better than look at the first couple. Politics and money aside, they represent the best of what traditional America is all about: loyalty, support, devotion, caring, love and protection. I could wish no more for my own children; I want no less from my first family. They have it. We should be grateful.