Vast areas of the Pacific Ocean will be protected as national monuments, thanks to an 11th-hour proclamation by President Bush. Score one more for Laura Bush. Perhaps because she came after Hillary Clinton, Mrs. Bush’s power has often gone unnoticed. But over her years in the White House – years when her approval rating was often double that of her husband’s – she came to understand that when she spoke people listened. She then determinedly used her position to further causes she cared about. And those causes could be surprising.
For the oceanic monuments, Laura Bush pulled out of her quiver a first lady’s most powerful weapon: the ability to influence her husband. The president rejected the advice of his vice president, according to the Washington Post, and listened instead to his wife, who had studied the issue by “soliciting input from outside scientists, asking for briefings on the proposed monument designations.” Deeply involved in public policy, Laura Bush is somewhat bemused by people’s perceptions of her.
“I read in this morning’s newspaper that I was prim,” she laughed to a group of historians and journalists she invited to the White House shortly before the presidential election. But she admitted that it had taken her some time to understand how powerful she could be. “I can’t believe how dense I was,” she joked.
The initial glimmer came after she substituted for the president on the radio, the first person to ever do so. It was soon after Sept. 11, 2001, and she was calling on the world to rally around the women of Afghanistan. “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” she said.
After the broadcast, she went shopping at a Texas department store where a salesclerk told the first lady how much her words had meant. “That’s when I realized I had a podium,” Mrs. Bush later remembered, but even so it took time for her to use it. “I grew in both my realization that I had a podium but also in my expertise about some international issues that I didn’t come to the White House with,” she said.
International issues moved to the top of the first lady’s agenda after Sept. 11. Within weeks, she was working with the women of Afghanistan on education, entrepreneurship and equal rights, eventually traveling to the country three times. In all, she visited 76 countries, delivering AIDS treatment, fighting malaria, and breaking the deadly taboo against talking about breast cancer in the Middle East.
On the home front, she continued her lifelong work on literacy and stocked whole school libraries on the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast; and she tackled heart disease, again using the president’s radio time to warn women of the danger signs. All were important causes, but causes that could be pigeonholed as “women’s issues” – issues that Laura Bush might have worked on in her former life as a librarian. Not so Burma.
In May 2008, it was no “prim” first lady who broke all precedent by going to the White House press room herself to condemn the military regime in the wake of the terrible cyclone and in anticipation of a sham election, asking “the world to put pressure on the military regime.” By that time, Mrs. Bush had spent many months relentlessly calling for the overthrow of the repressive Burmese government – ever since she had read a book by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning woman held under house arrest by the junta for most of 17 years.
As Laura Bush learned more about the country, making contact with human-rights activists on the Burmese-Thai border, she started her campaign to overthrow the generals – writing op-eds in the Wall Street Journal, lobbying Congress to enact economic sanctions, pressing the U.N. Security Council to deal with Burma, and persuading her husband to focus on that country in his address to the General Assembly.
The first lady leaves office disappointed that the generals are still in power but determined to keep working on their ouster, along with her continued support for the women of Afghanistan. But Laura Bush knows it won’t be the same. “When the first lady is interested, all the wheels are greased a lot faster. You really can call attention to things that the general public may not pay that much attention to, or members of Congress may not pay that much attention to.” And she has – for the sick, the uneducated, the repressed and the abused. And don’t forget the oceans.
Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2009, Steven and Cokie Roberts.
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