Laura Bush's demure public demeanor has often been a foil to her gutsy predecessor Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose activist forays into politics and policy brought condemnation from conservative critics. A New York Times review of a new book on our "un-Hillary" first lady partly credits a "White House message machine that sometimes seems determined to drain not only controversy but also content out of any public statement" in creating this "sphinxlike" persona. But Laura Bush is not demurring from making headlines as she solo-campaigns and fund-raises for her husband this week. In just the last three days, she's been in Bentonville, Ark., Canoga Park and Rancho Mirage, Calif., and Las Vegas, Nev. And while the former teacher was reading to children and hailing the value of literacy, safe subjects, to be sure, she didn't steer away from making the kind of politically provocative comments that are the stuff of easy wire story headlines and fodder for partisan debate.
There were comments on Mel Gibson's controversial film "The Passion," highly-anticipated by many evangelical Christian groups and criticized by Jewish leaders for perceived anti-Semitism. "I think it sounds very interesting, and I'd like to see it," she said of the film at a high school in Bentonville, Ark. She didn't shy away from discussing the roiling debate on same-sex nuptials, either, saying gay marriages are a "very, very shocking issue" for some people. As for her own views on the topic? "Let's just leave it at that," she said, a response sure to raise more questions than put them to rest. And then, in a plainly partisan jab at Terry McAuliffe and company, echoing what Hillary once said about the vast right-wing conspiracy, Laura Bush accused Democrats of going on a political "witch hunt" against her husband on the National Guard issue. "He knows that he served honorably," she said. "He knows that he showed up the whole time," she said.
Laura Bush's public appearances and interviews have grown more commonplace in recent weeks, especially as her husband's popularity suffers amid questions about WMDs, his National Guard service, and lagging job creation. She did a Meet the Press appearance in December. In just one day in early February, she appeared on the NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN morning shows and on Anderson Cooper's CNN program. And now there's this week's three-day blitz through Arkansas, California and Nevada. Her husband's political advisers must see a benefit in sending Laura Bush out as the public face of the campaign and administration. Even though a public opinion poll showed Laura Bush third in a "most admired women" list, behind Hillary and Oprah, the pollsters say her lackluster standing was likely a function of Americans just not knowing enough about her. If she turns into a regular on the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign trail, we may get to know her yet.