Laura Bush blends traditional, nontraditional styles as First Lady

January 12, 2004

Hazleton, Pa. -- The appeal of Laura Bush -- the first U.S. first lady of the 21st century -- lies in her white-glove style of activism, her lack of private ambition and, above all, her personal blend of conservative and liberal, traditional and nontraditional tendencies, a Penn State expert says.

After eight years of Hillary Rodham Clinton, some political analysts predicted that Laura Bush would "retraditionalize" the role of first lady, returning the White House to the days of Mamie Eisenhower, says Molly Meijer Wertheimer, associate professor of communication arts and sciences and women's studies at Penn State's Hazleton campus. Mrs. Eisenhower, wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, once remarked, "Ike runs the country; I turn the lamb chops."

But for Mrs. Bush, this simply hasn't been the case, according to Wertheimer, who notes, "Like her predecessors who straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, Mrs. Bush continues to balance the traditional demands of the role -- wife, mother, hostess -- with the modern demands for a first lady to be a political partner, a savvy public relations expert, and an independent advocate for those issues in which she takes a special interest."

Laura Bush -- by profession a teacher of minority children and a librarian -- has made promotion of education and reading her special bailiwicks. "It is as though Mrs. Bush is bringing a librarian's sense of organization to the messy closet of miscellaneous educational initiatives and interests. She is a true believer in what she calls the `magic of words,' " says Wertheimer, editor of a new book, "Inventing a Voice: The Rhetoric of American First Ladies of the Twentieth Century" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

In her pro-education speeches, Laura Bush, a mother of two, often combines the insights she has gained by watching her twin daughters develop their language skills with her experiences as a teacher. She skillfully identifies the need to do more for children, without placing blame on the teachers, according to the Penn State researcher.

Mrs. Bush, a Democrat before her 1977 marriage to George Bush, has taken other proactive roles, however. After the tragic events of 9/11, she assumed the role of consoler-in-chief for the nation and focused particularly on calming the anxieties of young people and their parents caused by the sudden destruction of the World Trade Center. She penned two letters to the nation's 100,000 schools, one letter tailored for elementary children, the second for middle school and high school students.

Wertheimer says, "Both letters were consoling, telling children that sad things happen, but that each and every one of them is important and loved. She told them they now have an opportunity to do things for other people -- to show how much others mean to them.

"In November 2001, Mrs. Bush broke with tradition to deliver, instead of her husband, a radio address in support of the women and children of Afghanistan -- and their rights to an education and full participation in their societies," she adds. This was the first time in American history that a first lady gave one of her husband's regularly scheduled radio addresses entirely by herself.

During a recent TV interview with Larry King, she hinted that she may be traveling to Afghanistan in the near future. She is very interested in international education, especially of women and girls.

"If she stays on her current trajectory using her white-glove pulpit to do good deeds, she will exceed the low expectations some commentators have had had of her," the Penn State researcher says. "Rather than turning the lamb chops, this first lady may very well help the shepherds learn to read."

"Inventing a Voice" provides succinct but insightful biographies of all first ladies of the 20th century, ranging from the best known such as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt to the more obscure such as Ida Saxton McKinley and Ellen Axson Wilson (the first wife of Woodrow Wilson).

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017