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Mothering the Old Boys

By Tina Brown
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page C01

In Barbara Walters's "20/20" interview last Friday with President and Laura Bush, the first lady remarked that in the second term she wants to focus on boys. "I feel like over the last several decades we've neglected boys a little bit," Mrs. Bush explained sweetly as she and Barbara toured the White House renovations (including the new look of the Lincoln Bedroom, where she paused to tell Barbara how much she empathized with Mary Todd Lincoln, who went quietly mad). "I just think it's time for Americans to sort of shift our gaze to boys and see what we can do to nurture boys."

You can say that again.

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Between the president and the vice president, to say nothing of Rummy, Wolfie and Rove, so much testosterone ran amok in the first term that it's high time for someone to "give boys the life skills that maybe we automatically teach to girls," as Mrs. Bush put it. "Super Nanny" needs to call a time out before somebody starts bombing Iran.

No one is better equipped than Mrs. Bush to calm down the nation's bad boys. As her husband's shock-and-awe absorber, she has done it throughout her marriage. If you could bottle the effect she has on the presidential psyche, every kid with a nasty attitude could throw away the Ritalin.

The first lady's preternatural serenity was on display throughout the Walters interview. She sat at her husband's side with those lovely, wise cat's eyes and subtle Mona Lisa smile. No straining for inclusion. No edgy "I'm not just an appendage" vibes, like Hillary in the pre-Sen. Clinton days. No ill-concealed, fathomless sadness, like poor Pat Nixon. Laura Bush may be unique among recent first ladies for getting through a whole term without putting the wrong foot forward. All first ladies, except the natural clotheshorses like Jackie and Nancy, improve their fashion sense and haircut during the first term. But Laura's Oscar de la Renta makeover has not been an odyssey strewn with heinous fashion misfires. Even her weight loss has been a quiet victory.

All through the campaign -- the hardest time to get it right -- she was Our Lady of the Sound Bite. Her finest hour was the flawless grace she showed when Teresa Heinz Kerry tossed out that unfortunate comment about how Mrs. Bush, a former schoolteacher and librarian, had never had a "real job." The White House statement purred: "Mrs. Bush knows it's not always easy when your husband runs for president. She knows that some days there's lots of interviews where lots of things are said, and knows that everyone looks forward to Nov. 2 coming around."

It beat the gosh darn heck out of Dick Cheney's "go [expletive] yourself" to Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor (while deftly conveying the same meaning), didn't it? Those female "life skills" triumph every time.

What was striking in the Walters interview was how often the president looked over at Laura for validation. Even with his amped-up second-term cockiness, she's still his security blanket. When Walters asked him, "Do you think you've changed very much in four years?" he immediately replied, "You better ask Laura" -- as if he has outsourced emotional self-reflection to his wife. It's always been one of the paradoxes of W that his rigid worldview and inflexible routines are born of a fragile sense of his own worth. It's the baggage of having to compete all his life not just with such an accomplished father but also with the superior gifts of younger brother Jeb.

"His fear of being attacked is so vivid," psychiatrist Justin Frank, author of the insight-crammed "Bush on the Couch," suggested to me the other day. "He has to have all these layers of protection. That's why even for a town hall meeting, the crowd was pre-selected in case they asked a tough question."

One of the endearingly old-fashioned WASPy masculine things about both President Bushes is their touching obliviousness to Freudian categories. The canny Viennese would have had little trouble interpreting the recent unceremonious booting of Brent Scowcroft, Bush 41's national security adviser, co-author and alter ego, as chairman of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board for his dissenting views on Iraq. Or the son's omission of the father as a speaker at the Republican convention -- and then, with presumably unconscious sadism, assigning dear old dad the uncomfortable PR task of co-chairing the tsunami relief effort with the pot-smoking '60s cad who whipped his butt in 1992, former president Clinton. There has to be some Oedipal payback to the Poppy he adores for knowing just how fragile his son really is.

Admitting weakness seems to be such a severe psychic threat for Bush that when he makes a mistake it's safer just to reinforce it. The strategy creates a perverse system of rewards and punishments. Donald Rumsfeld's reward for misjudging so much of post-invasion strategy in Iraq is to be invited to play Risk again -- with even more cards, and fewer roadblocks from the CIA. The logic seems to be if you've got an Achilles' heel, you get picked for the track team.

One of the strangest aspects of all this is how the nation, and even most of the opposition, colludes with the president's personal denial system. We saw it happening again in Condi's confirmation hearings on Tuesday when, as the New York Times pointed out, Dr. Rice acted as if things were going according to plan in Iraq and elsewhere and the senators acted as if she were not part of the serial disasters of the Bush administration.

When Clinton was in power nobody ever hesitated to analyze the president's emotional neediness and eagerness to please as the obvious characteristics of an adult child of an alcoholic, but W's gift for holding the nation in thrall to early familial fears is always hailed as presidential strength.

"Don't put me on the couch," Poppy used to say, but the couch is probably a better place than the political science seminar room to look for insights into the family that, come the next presidential election, will have occupied one of the two highest offices in the land for 20 of the previous 28 years.

Perhaps Laura's inner calm comes from the fact that she is the only one in the family who is a reader of novels rather than one-page memos. While others may think the story is "Top Gun," she's always known it's "Peter Pan."

©2005, Tina Brown

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