The President's Wife

First lady Laura Bush CBS/The Early Show

President Bush has plenty on his plate as his second term swings into high gear.

But he's not the only one.

First lady Laura Bush could make a mark of her own over the next four years. She talks about it with CBS News Correspondent Rita Braver, who returns to the scene of her old beat, the White House, for CBS News Sunday Morning.
Whether she's visiting the troops with her husband or posing with foreign leaders, Laura Bush is constantly on the go.

Asked if she would agree with Pat Nixon that being first lady is the hardest unpaid job in the world, she responds, "Well, I don't know if I would call it the hardest job by any means. It's actually, is a lot of fun. I get to do great things."

"You know today I'm getting ready to go with the president to do an event in Pittsburgh for helping America's youth. I'm going to have lunch with the king and queen of Norway…. Don't feel sorry for me."

But even if she seems every inch a traditional first lady, the term is a description she bristles at.

She says she prefers "wife of the president," noting, "maybe sometime it'll be husband of the president."

She says she has no political aspirations herself.

Still, she has come to understand the influence she wields. Her focus on education helped get the president's No Child Left Behind bill passed. And just a few weeks ago, during his State of the Union address, Mr. Bush announced a new initiative "to help organizations keep young people out of gangs and show young men an ideal of manhood that respects women and rejects violence." He named Laura Bush the leader of this nationwide effort.

She has wasted no time getting started, with a multi-city tour just this past week. Sunday Morning traveled aboard her official plane Executive One: Foxtrot when she traveled to Milwaukee.

She was only on the ground for a few hours, enough time to meet with some fathers who are in a program that teaches parenting skills and to make a short speech, praising their efforts:

"Their children will benefit greatly from having a relationship with a loving and responsible father," she says.

Laura Bush says she finds the statistics on boys alarming. "Most of the people who end up in prison are boys or men, and we know that many, many families -- many more than ever before in our society -- are fatherless."

As she hoped, her visit generated plenty of publicity for her cause. Whether she admits it or not, she's become an accomplished politician. She was considered a major asset in the last campaign, with a higher public approval rating than her husband.

When Sunday Morning first visited her almost five years ago, her husband was still governor of Texas, and Mrs. Bush seemed a bit ambivalent about going to Washington:

At the time she said that the governor's mansion would be a hard place to leave. "This is a beautiful house. It's been the governor's mansion that all of the governors have lived in since 1856."

The Bushes had barely settled into the White House when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. And it was really in the aftermath that the country got to know Laura Bush.

She seemed to be everywhere, reassuring the public on television talk shows, at schools and in public service announcements.

She was soon hailed as the "comforter-in-chief." She even made history by becoming the first president's wife ever to give the weekly radio address from the White House, castigating the Taliban for their treatment of women in Afghanistan, saying, "Only the terrorists and the Taliban forbid education to women. Only the terrorists and the Taliban threaten to pull out women's fingernails for wearing nail polish."

Though some have called her "bland," unlike her predecessor, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush has never been a lighting rod for criticism.

Veteran CBS News Correspondent Bill Plante has been covering the White House since Ronald and Nancy Reagan lived there.

He believes the lack of controversy around her is "a conscious decision on her part about how she is and who she wishes to be to the public."

Plante guesses that Laura Bush talks to her husband about policy more than she lets on, but adds, "We're never going to find out unless it's second or third hand…. That's the thing about being first lady. No one ever knows unless you tell them exactly what your influence on the president is."

She once said that she thought Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court's most important decision on abortion, should not be overturned.

When asked about it now, in light of the fact that some changes are likely on the way in the Supreme Court, she says, "Well, this is what I know… my husband will pick people who are very excellent."

"The fact is, you can't ask any of those people what their personal opinion is because if they say what their personal opinion is about any issues, then they're recused from deliberating on those issues," she adds.

If Laura Bush is extremely careful about every word she utters, she has good reason.

Everything she does, says and wears is totally scrutinized.

"I think I've gotten used to it," she says. "I saw somebody I loved a lot in this role, my mother-in-law Barbara Bush, and I know how she was scrutinized…. Its just the fact of life and it's something you expect and so, for one thing, I've really tried to have better clothes than I had before."

There was lots of talk about her inaugural wardrobe four years ago, compared to what she wore this time. One article said she went from serviceable to dynamic.

"I think that's funny, and actually fun. I had fun shopping for the inaugural clothes. My girls and I went shopping together, and you know, it was fun and interesting. Do I think it's superficial? Sure, a little bit. But it was fun to be involved in it."

When asked about whether her daughters' sense of style influences her, or vice versa, she says:

"I try to influence them, but I don't have that much influence…. I just tell them to stand up tall and you know, make sure their midriffs don't show," she notes with a laugh.

The affection between Mr. and Mrs. Bush is obvious, and he's not above giving her a friendly little pat on the rear.

She says the president still gets up most mornings and brings her coffee.

"That's been our ritual our whole married life. And now he comes in with Ms. Beazley, our new little tiny dog. So she spends a little time running around on the bed and jumping on us."

On a personal level Laura Bush says that if anything has come from four years in the White House, it is that she and her husband are even closer than before they came here.

"In this job you really do need a relationship where you get a lot of emotional support from each other, and fortunately, we have that kind of relationship that we can give it to each other," she says.
  • Brian Dakss

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