The roar of the dowager

While the rest of the country gets a look at the new George, Barbara Bush plays to her same old crowd.

Published February 10, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

As we settled into the hotel ballroom here Wednesday and waited for Barbara Bush to arrive, the stereo was playing "A Whiter Shade of Pale." It fit. Though this event was billed as a Women for Bush rally, it would have been more precise to say "Old White Republican Women for Bush." Aside from a small contingent of Asian-Americans sitting in the front rows and a cluster of eight or so black women in the back, the room overflowed with Caucasian dowagers.

The group was pretty smartly dressed in long, plaid skirts and brightly colored wool suits, accented by Hermes scarves and tasteful jewels. The bauble of choice? The elephant brooch, of course. Gold elephants, cloisonni elephants, red-white-and-blue sequined elephants and elephants with rhinestones sparkling from their eyes -- all these and more proudly decorated the lapel of many a heaving breast.

The whole event took on the feel of a reunion, with a delicate hand raised here and there throughout the room waving to an old friend across the rows of chairs. Though the guests politely accepted the Bush for President signs handed to them by organizers, it was the candidate's mother they cared about. That son of hers just seemed like an excuse to let the former first lady know how much she was missed by her fans.

When she finally made it to the podium, the matrons suddenly dropped all sense of decorum, leapt to their feet and waved their placards, letting out a full-throated roar. When they had quieted themselves, Bush launched into her speech, a bit hoarse from her work on the campaign trail, and worked through her script perhaps a little too quickly. It was thoroughly recycled stuff: tax cuts, school reform, compassionate conservative, blah, blah, blah. She informed us that one in eight Americans is already governed by a Bush (between governors Jeb and George), and reminded us too that 69 percent of Texans had supported her boy's return to office last election. She also let everyone know that -- surprise -- she voted for him too.

Bush did sprinkle in several bits of humor. Along with the perennial "if this or that famous person had been a woman" joke -- a necessity, I'm discovering, at politi-chick gatherings -- Bush also joked about running for Senate, like that other first lady. It got laughs all around.

A dig at Hillary Clinton is standard fare for GOP speakers this election cycle, of course, but it also seemed revealing at this particular rally, since not even one elected Republican woman was anywhere to be found. No elected GOP woman rated so much as a mention, though the wives of several Virginia Republicans did earn substantial praise.

Perhaps that's what women do best in this faction of the Republican Party -- be wives. For the political wives in attendance, Bush gave out some sage advice: Stay quiet. "Be supportive. Don't be critical," she said. "He's hired people to do that."

Presumably, this goes for political moms, too. But this mom had a little trouble heeding her own advice. After patiently shaking hands with what seemed like all 200 of the guests, Bush fielded questions from the press with the prickly assurance of the national grandmother.

She demurred on policy issues and discounted the current catfight between her son and John McCain, saying that they'd probably end up great friends after the race, just like her husband and Bob Dole did. When someone dared to suggest that the Bush parents were doing more harm than good in public appearances with their son George by overpraising him and calling him their "boy," she turned scold.

"Don't you have a mother?" she said to the impudent reporter. "Well, she feels the same way about you."

That and $60 million might just get you the presidency.

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

MORE FROM Alicia Montgomery

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

George W. Bush Republican Party