Book Worm In The Spotlight

Texas first lady Laura Bush waves to the crowd as she rehearses on stage at the First Union Center, July 31, 2000. Laura Bush was preparing for her speech at the convention.
Whatever else may be said of Laura Bush, who made her debut in the national limelight Monday night, you can be sure of one thing: if she does become our next first lady, she won’t be another Hillary Clinton.

Or another Nancy Reagan. Or Betty Ford. Or Rosalyn Carter. Nor, for that matter, will she evoke comparisons to her own mother-in-law, Barbara Bush.

As I watched her address the delegates on the opening night of the 2000 Republican National Convention, I was struck by her quiet, low-key, almost self-effacing manner. And it occurred to me that if her husband is elected, Laura Bush is apt be the least pushy first lady since Pat Nixon brought her reclusive act to the White House.

Insofar as Mrs. Nixon is remembered at all, it is not for anything she said or did so much as for her modest sartorial taste, the “simple, Republican cloth coat” her husband alluded to with such pride in his famous Checkers speech.

But in the years since the Nixons fell from power, our first ladies have been far more assertive.

Betty Ford cut such a dynamic figure that after the Fords left the White House, her published memoirs outsold those of her husband. Nor did Rosalyn Carter hesitate to embrace controversial stands - on a few occasions she even elbowed her way into her husband’s Cabinet meetings.

Then there was Nancy Reagan, whose adoring, beatific gaze whenever her husband gave a speech was one of the more vivid images from the Reagan years. And on certain issues, such as the pursuit of peace agreements with the Russians, her influence was so strong that hard-line conservative Reaganites would grumble about what they called “creeping Nancyism.”

Barbara Bush, it’s true, was a bit more subdued in manner than her three predecessors. She focused most of her energies on her volunteer work for literacy and, in her spare time, she ghosted the memoirs of Millie, the White House dog.

As for Hillary Clinton, all that needs to be said is that she has raised the level of first-lady activism to heights that have not been seen in Washington since the reign of Eleanor Roosevelt.

But Laura Bush is clearly cut from a much different cloth; perhaps a distant relative of that Republican coat Pat Nixon wore with such distinction.

What was so remarkable about Mrs. Bush’s prime-time appearance Monday night was not her speech - an earnest but hardly inspiring paean to her husband and the commitment they share to high standards of education. Rather, it was the fact that this was the first time, in her husband’s long national campaign, that she has stepped into the spotlight.

For the better part of two years, George W. Bush has been running hard for the presidency. Yet except for a few token appearances on festive occasions like primary election triumphs, his wife was nowhere to be seen.

And when we recall how vigorously Betty Ford, Rosalyn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton ampaigned for their husbands, the contrast is truly startling.

Until now, Laura Bush has been such an obscure presence that millions of Americans are just discovering her, learning for the first time about her placid early career as an elementary-school librarian.

And also learning for the first time that on some hot-button issues - such as abortion and the death penalty - she is known to disagree with her husband, although she makes it clear that she would never, ever, reveal those differences in public.

Yet now that she’s finally had her coming-out party, does that mean we’ll be seeing and hearing more from her? Well, yes, of course, because there’s no way she can avoid being involved in the campaign as it moves into its critical phase.

But don’t expect her to hit the hustings with anything approaching zest or elan. For it was obvious from her nervous and diffident demeanor Monday night that she has no stomach for the limelight, any more than Pat Nixon did.

Earlier Monday, when I remarked to a friend – a fellow political junkie – that Laura Bush seemed to be more retiring in nature than any other political wife of recent memory, he replied: “Well, what did you expect? Have you ever seen a flamboyant librarian?”