What a Difference a Year Makes

01/10/2002 at 12:44 PM EST

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.

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