What a Difference a Year Makes

01/10/2002 AT 12:44 PM EST

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.

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