What a Difference a Year Makes

01/10/2002 at 12:44 PM EST

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."

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