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First lady's approach winning America's hearts

July 26, 2001|By Douglas Kiker, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) n Six months into her husband's presidency, Laura Bush has established herself as one of the most private first ladies in recent memory, and a new poll shows a strong majority of Americans approve of the way she is handling her very public job.

If Hillary Rodham Clinton thought herself to be the next Eleanor Roosevelt, Laura Bush might well be taking her cue from a far more private and reticent first lady, her Texan predecessor, Lady Bird Johnson, according to several experts.

"She is, perhaps, the most private first lady in the last 50 years," said Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia.

Particularly when compared to her immediate predecessor, Mrs. Bush has assumed a far more traditional stance as first lady, avoiding the spotlight and publicly staying out of policy and political decision-making.

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"In a lot of respects Laura Bush is a throwback to an earlier era," said Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University. "She clearly has a more traditional view of the office than her predecessor."

A former teacher and librarian, Mrs. Bush has chosen to focus her energies on reading programs and early childhood education — a far cry from Mrs. Clinton's first year in the White House, when she was charged with reconfiguring the nation's entire health care system, a high-profile job that drew much attention.

But Mrs. Bush's style has not hurt her standing with the public, according to a poll released this week by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, a nonpartisan polling firm.

Sixty-four percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of her personally, and only 17 percent view her negatively. At the same point in President Clinton's first term, Mrs. Clinton was viewed positively by 60 percent of voters, but her unfavorable ratings were nearly double Mrs. Bush's at 29 percent.

"In many ways, she's perceived as the anti-Hillary," said Pew poll editor Carroll Doherty.

Mrs. Bush's private nature has certainly helped her popularity ratings, said West.

"In some respects, Laura Bush has been the stealth first lady," West said. "She has not had a very high visibility level and has avoided controversy — and that is a recipe for good poll numbers."

Those polled were asked what one word came to mind when they thought of Mrs. Bush.

"Nice," "ladylike," "classy," "intelligent," "quiet" and "good" were some of the most common. Highlighting the different perceptions of the women, the words chosen to describe Clinton were "smart," "intelligent," and "aggressive."

Sometimes the fishbowl effect of White House life is impossible for her to avoid. Earlier this week, Mrs. Bush and daughter Barbara accompanied the president to Europe, where they toured Rome and lunched with Queen Elizabeth II, an event that forced Mrs. Bush to broach one of her least favorite public topics.

A London tabloid report that her daughter wore blue jeans to meet the queen resulted in one of Mrs. Bush's few public displays of emotion in the last six months. On Monday, the first lady appeared on NBC's "Today Show" to dispute n vehemently n the tabloid's story.

Her other daughter, Jenna, has been cited twice for underage drinking in Texas, where she recently completed her freshman year in college. In spite of the media attention the legal problems attracted, Mrs. Bush refused to comment publicly on the matter.

Her reticence, however, could be one reason that she's not at the top of the public's list as the ideal first lady, said Doherty.

Indeed, when the Pew poll asked which first lady most closely represented the ideal, only 6 percent said Laura Bush, while about 30 percent said either Mrs. Clinton or Barbara Bush, the first lady's mother-in-law. Nancy Reagan registered 20 percent.

One reason Laura Bush's numbers in that category are low might be the relatively short time her husband has been in office, Doherty said. But, he said, her low profile is also a factor.

"The public has formed this impression that Clinton, Reagan and the elder Bush are ‘first ladies' but they have not yet reached that feeling about Laura Bush," he said. "It may be because she has stayed out of the spotlight, and they have just not made this connection with her."

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