Laura Bush, the political wife who used to claim she hated public speaking, has emerged as the Republicans' secret weapon in this fall's presidential election campaign.
The one-time librarian and schoolteacher, who became a housewife and stay-at-home mother when she married George W. Bush in 1977, is enthusiastically embracing her new career. As presidential surrogate, she is crisscrossing small-town America in a campaign aimed at invigorating the party's conservative base and making inroads among independent and undecided voters, especially women.
On this Thursday afternoon, Mrs. Bush has come to this undistinguished city in central Wisconsin, known for its insurance company and its paper mills, to rustle up a few more votes for her husband. Wisconsin is a key battleground state that opted for Al Gore by fewer than 6,000 votes in 2000, but where Mr. Bush is now leading in opinion polls against Democratic challenger John Kerry.
"Over the last several months, I've had a really wonderful time travelling around our country, and I've met so many people who have a deep love for our country and for our President," she tells 750 supporters in the gymnasium at the local Boys and Girls Club. "My husband is a man of great character and conviction."
It's her standard speech, an uncontroversial one that she gives several times a week in towns like Clovis, N.M., and Hamilton, N.J. Looking poised and perfectly groomed in a well-tailored grey suit and impeccably coiffed hair, the 57-year-old Mrs. Bush is full of upbeat talk about how well the economy is doing, how educational standards are rising and how much her husband is doing to improve health-care coverage for ordinary Americans.
The crowd loves it. "She's so pretty and she's doing a good job," said Barbara Fox, a 61-year-old housewife from Plainfield, Wis., as she clutches an American flag, a photo of the Bushes and a sign reading "W Stands for Women."
In the 2000 campaign, Mrs. Bush appeared at her husband's side and seldom uttered a word. This year, she has been put upon to use her skills as a campaigner to the maximum.
"She's a great asset because she puts a human face on an administration that desperately needs a compassionate face," said Kati Marton, author of Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages that Shaped Our History, which studies the role of first ladies from Woodrow Wilson to the current White House.
"She is . . . the ideal Republican wife, very traditional, very unthreatening," she says of Mrs. Bush. "Always looks just perfect."
(Ms. Marton is married to Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who is now an influential adviser to John Kerry's campaign.)
It's not the first time an American first lady has been actively involved in politics, beginning when Eleanor Roosevelt appeared before the Democratic Party Convention in 1940 and helped to persuade the delegates to back Henry Wallace, her husband's choice for vice-president, according to Paul Boller, Jr., professor emeritus of history at Texas Christian University.
Lady Bird Johnson campaigned throughout the South to counter the white backlash against her husband Lyndon Johnson's civil-rights initiatives in 1964, and Hillary Clinton reinvented the role by helping to drive Bill Clinton's health-care policy in the 1990s.
But Laura Bush doesn't have that strong political drive, which makes her active involvement in the campaign all the more surprising. She does not play the backstage power-brokering role of Nancy Reagan, whom Prof. Boller says helped to push her husband on negotiations with the Soviet Union and "even got people fired."
"She is the most traditional first lady we have had since Beth Truman," Ms. Marton says. "She is much more traditional than her mother-in-law, Barbara, who was much feistier and whose opinions were well-known."
In essence, Mrs. Bush is on the hustings only because the party has called on her to bolster votes among women. She always mentions successful women during her speeches, singling out a female small-business owner she met on her travels.
"Today in most families, most parents are working outside the home," she says, "including two-thirds of mothers." She notes that more Americans are going to college and "when these graduates enter the workplace, I'm proud to say that a lot of them will go to work for a woman boss."
That image is quite unlike the world she came from. Laura Welch grew up in Mr. Bush's hometown of Midland, Tex., the only child of a well-to-do home builder and his wife. She lived a sheltered life in a conservative town made rich by oil money.
One incident in an otherwise uneventful youth remains with her still. At the age of 17, she drove her father's car through a stop sign and crashed into a Corvair that had the right of way, killing the driver of the car, her high-school classmate and track star Michael Douglas. (Accounts of the incident frequently refer to him as her boyfriend; there is little to substantiate that claim.)
The police report from the time found no evidence of excessive speed or drinking, but there was no full investigation. Laura was never charged and the episode was relegated to what Mrs. Bush now refers to simply as a "tragic accident."
After graduating from Southern Methodist University, Laura Welch taught for a time in a low-income school in Houston and later became a librarian, where she turned her love of reading into a brief career at a largely Hispanic school in Austin.
It was 1977 when Laura met the young George W. Bush at a barbecue in Midland. He was a graduate of Yale and Harvard Business School, the wealthy and handsome son of a prominent Texas politician, but he was clearly at loose ends, better known for his womanizing and drinking than any serious accomplishments.
Laura could not have been more grounded, an elementary-school librarian who was perfectly satisfied to stop working and take care of her husband as he pursued his political and business careers. Within three months of their first meeting, they were married.
George's parents were thrilled. "She's special," George Bush Sr. has said. "She's a very wonderful wife for George. I mean, golly, she can calm him down."
Ms. Marton concurs. "She seems to have an extremely calming influence on her hyper-kinetic husband and clearly played a major role in getting him to stop drinking."
It didn't happen right away. It was not until the mid-1980s, when the young Mr. Bush's efforts at becoming an oilman were failing, and Mrs. Bush reportedly threatened to leave her husband with their twin daughters, that he finally got off the bottle.
According to Mr. Bush himself, his wife gave him the ultimatum to decide between "Jim Beam and me." Already looking to join the Bush family business of politics, George agreed that Laura was "the best wife for the line of work that I'm in. She doesn't try to steal the limelight."
She still defers to her husband, but the President now recognizes that his wife is more popular with the public than he is. At every campaign stop, he always says the most important reason for voting for him on Nov. 2 "is so that Laura is first lady for four more years."
Mrs. Bush attracts a 70 per cent favourable rating, according to a poll last month by the Pew Research Center.
Even 53 per cent of Democrats viewed her favourably. She's vastly more popular than Teresa Heinz Kerry, who garnered a favourable rating from only 43 per cent of respondents.
Men in particular prefer Mrs. Bush's traditional-style wife to Mrs. Heinz Kerry's independent woman. An astonishing 76 per cent of men over 30 years of age had a favourable view of Mrs. Bush. Only 44 per cent thought well of Mrs. Heinz Kerry.
"Mrs. Heinz Kerry is a lightning rod for men. There's no doubt about it," says Carroll Doherty, an editor at the Pew Research Center.
The popularity of Mrs. Bush parallels the increasing success Republicans are having with women voters, which contrasts with 2000, when Democrat Al Gore attracted 54 per cent of women's votes according to exit polls. According to the latest Pew presidential poll, Mr. Bush is leading Mr. Kerry among women voters by 45 per cent to 42 per cent.
"Kerry is doing a lot worse among women than Gore did four years ago and he's not doing as well as he did among women as he did earlier in the campaign," Mr. Doherty says.
Mrs. Bush generally avoids controversy, but she does a great job at reinforcing the Republican line on terrorism and Iraq. In presenting her husband as a warrior-president and liberator of oppressed peoples, she makes sure that she links the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with the subsequent invasion of Iraq, part of the Bush mantra essential to making an unpopular war acceptable to voters.
"As we grieve for the families in Russia and as we mark the third anniversary of Sept. 11, I believe what's most important is my husband's work to protect our country and to defeat terror around the world," she says in her soft Texas accent.
The Wisconsin crowd hangs on every word as she recounts how girls in Afghanistan who had been denied education by the Taliban were now back in school, and how the people of Iraq are now "free from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein." In just 16 minutes, the speech is all over. She climbs down from the stage to shake hands and sign autographs.
Hannah Brownfield drove 2½ hours with 30 of her fellow students from Northland Baptist Bible College just to see Mrs. Bush. She can't contain her excitement at having her photo taken with her.
"I think she's just awesome," says Ms. Brownfield, a 19-year-old education student who was dressed in an ankle-length skirt and modest blouse, mandatory for all girls at the college. "Everything she stands for is right."
"I know where they [she and President Bush] stand on marriage. It's one man and one woman. It's biblical. I'm pro-life and Bush is pro-life so we totally agree on this issue. He's a Christian and he believes what the Bible says and I believe what the Bible says."
Asked if any students at her college were supporting John Kerry, she couldn't imagine how that would be possible. "Most of the things the Democrats stand for are anti-biblical. We are a Bible college so all of us stand for the Bible."
Barbara Skingkofer, a retired teacher's aide, says the most important issues in the election are "protecting innocent babies and supporting our troops."
On the abortion issue, Mrs. Skinghofer says, "we all know where she and President Bush stand. They're pro-life."
In fact, Mrs. Bush is on record as supporting Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States. Just before her husband's inauguration in January of 2001, Mrs. Bush said she did not think the court ruling should be overturned.
But Mrs. Bush never discusses abortion or same-sex marriage in her speeches, allowing the Christian right to believe she is firmly on their side.
And although she is reported to be more liberal than her husband on issues such as gun control, she never utters a word about it.
She has said: "If I differ from my husband, I'm not going to tell you."
But while Mrs. Bush's supporters swoon in excitement at meeting their heroine and praise her as a role model for women across America, opinions outside the Boys and Girls Club are not nearly so kind.
"A role model? I guess she is if you want to be a Stepford wife," says Jane Rausch, a 44-year-old disabled corrections officer and one of two dozen Kerry supporters who heckled the Bush backers as they headed back to their SUVs.
"I think she does whatever her husband says," declares 65-year-old Polly Petroff, who adds caustically, "She's probably a good librarian."
Alan Freeman is a correspondent in The Globe and Mail's Washington bureau.