washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Ellen Goodman

Questions for the 'Comforter in Chief'

By Ellen Goodman
Saturday, October 9, 2004; Page A31

BOSTON -- How could I have forgotten that George W. was a compassionate conservative? He chose the moniker of a kinder, gentler Republican four years ago to distinguish himself from Newt Gingrich's crowd. Newt's idea of compassion was building a chain of orphanages.

This year W. is running as commander in chief instead. It's only in attacking Kerry that the president reminded us petulantly: He's "a tax-and-spend liberal. I'm a compassionate conservative." He sounded as if he were in a slugfest for the title of nice guy. Never mind. Bush never really eliminated compassion from his political corporation. He just outsourced it. To Laura.

_____Today's Op-Eds_____

_____What's Your Opinion?_____
Message Boards Share Your Views About Editorials and Opinion Pieces on Our Message Boards
About Message Boards

In 2004, Bush Inc. has split. George does the conservative; Laura does the compassion. He's running the muscular campaign. She's running the woman's auxiliary, reassuring voters that the president's biggest muscle is his heart. Talk about "hard work."

At the Republican National Convention, Laura spoke of quiet nights at the dinner table: "He's a loving man with a big heart. I've seen tears as he has hugged families who've lost loved ones." In TV ads, she provided credibility as her husband talked about anguished parents on Sept. 11.

Every day in her stump speech, Laura describes Afghanistan as a women's lib success story rather than a shaky work in progress. When the Democrats promote embryonic stem cell research, she chides them with "compassionate" criticism for raising false hopes. When asked about the constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, the first lady wished away conflict by declaring that the proposal "opens up the debate." If he's the divider, she's the appointed uniter.

George and Laura have always been something of a Mars and Venus couple. The hell-raiser and the librarian. He was rough around the edges, she smoothed them. He drank too much, she made him stop. A TV split screen can catch George looking impatient and arrogant, but Laura retains the unshakable ability to look serene.

I never liked Tina Brown's description of Laura Bush as Stepford wife. Stepford closed down a long time ago and Laura never lived there. When she got to the White House, a reporter asked whether she viewed her role as Eleanor or Hillary, Bess or Mamie. She said, "I view my role as first lady as Laura Bush." Hear, hear to that.

There were hints that she was a wink-and-nod moderate. When asked about Roe v. Wade in 2001, she said, "No, I don't think it should be overturned." When asked about the in-vitro fertilization treatments that end up with leftover embryos, she said "That sounds all right with me."

After Sept. 11, this woman won the well-deserved title of "comforter in chief." She was composed and stricken and engaged. In one memorable speech she talked about prewar "self-indulgence" and wartime "goodness throughout the land."

I wondered then whether she would be propelled into a larger public role and become one of the great first ladies. But it wasn't until the campaign took off that the wife whose job approval ratings overwhelm those of her husband went into full motion.

Every candidate's wife has an impossible role. Of all the women who have tried it this year -- from Judy Steinberg Dean to Teresa Heinz Kerry -- the most traditional is the least controversial. Part of the wifely tradition is "humanizing" the candidate, as if he couldn't do it himself. In that way, Laura has become the fabric softener for George's flight suit.

On Wednesday Mrs. Bush told an audience of Fortune 500 women about a kindergarten student who was asked to describe the first lady's responsibilities. "A little girl named Shelby wrote that I help the president with his paperwork and then I help him clean his office and I take care of him when he's sick and put cold cloths on his head." They all laughed politely at the things kids say.

But I wonder about the librarian who doesn't defend libraries against the Patriot Act. What about the woman who wouldn't overturn Roe in an administration that would? How can a woman who clearly cares about schoolchildren act as if there is No Child Left Behind? And what did she feel when one New Jersey mother who lost a son in Iraq, Sue Niederer, tried to confront her and ended up in handcuffs?

Only four out of 10 Americans believe that George W. Bush has governed compassionately. The woman who doesn't influence policy is brought in to influence image.

But it takes more than a first lady to cook up compassion in this White House.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company