If there is one taboo in campaign mud fights, it's girl-on-girl slaps. Wives and children are off-limits, especially to each other. Tipper and Hillary kept it together in public for all of those years, even through all the tensions. When Barbara Bush was asked what she thought of Geraldine Ferraro and said "it rhymes with witch," it was as if she'd peeled off her gloves on television and bared her unmanicured claws.
"Catfight!" yelled the frat boy lurking in all of us. And now the moment is here again. Not in the prom-dressing-room whispers of Barbara Bush but from the bored chaperone voice of Teresa Heinz Kerry.
"Well, you know, I don't know Laura Bush. But she seems to be calm, and she has a sparkle in her eye, which is good," Heinz Kerry said in a USA Today interview published Tuesday. "But I don't know that she's ever had a real job -- I mean, since she's been grown up."
A real job?
For one thing, no one says "real job" anymore. The correct term these days, and for the past 20 years, is "a job outside the home."
For another, everyone knows that Laura Bush was a librarian and a teacher. Just yesterday she talked about it again for the millionth time in one of those standard first lady events honoring great history teachers. Never mind that she hasn't taught in nearly 30 years and that she quit as soon as her future husband proposed.
Laura Bush will always be, in the public imagination, The Librarian. Even for Democrats, who like to fantasize that behind her smile lurks a curious, even progressive ally, their spy in the White House, reading with her Itty Bitty book light in bed late into the night.
Plus Heinz Kerry has to know that everyone loves Laura Bush: women, men, Democrats, children. Her approval rating is just about her husband's plus Dick Cheney's, the highest of anyone in the administration.
Within hours after the USA Today interview was highlighted on the Drudge Report yesterday, Heinz Kerry realized her mistake and apologized.
"I had forgotten that Mrs. Bush had worked as a school teacher and librarian," she wrote in a statement, "and there couldn't be a more important job than teaching our children. As someone who has been both a full-time mom and full-time in workforce, I know we all have valuable experiences that shape who we are. I appreciate and honor Mrs. Bush's service to the country as first lady, and am sincerely sorry I had not remembered her important work in the past."
But here Heinz Kerry just stepped into it deeper. Again, she was repeating that Laura Bush only had a job when she had a paying job, and not during all those years she was raising the twins, or supporting her husband, or being first lady, or all those other things one is not allowed to define as the opposite of job. And Bush adviser Karen Hughes, who famously left the White House to spend more time with her husband and son, picked up on that instantly.
"Well, I think it's very nice that she apologized, but in some ways the apology almost made the comment worse because she seems to have forgotten that being a mother is a real job," Hughes said on CNN. "Again, I think her comment threw an inappropriate wedge between women who choose to work at home and women who choose to work outside the home. I think most women -- and most men -- would be offended by that because most women want to be able to choose to do what's right for them, whether it's to stay with their families and work at home or to work outside the home pursuing a career."
Republicans have gotten sophisticated about feminism. Laura Bush does not stand up at "W Stands for Women" rallies and hand out her cookie recipes. She talks about how, in her husband's administration, "there are more women in senior positions than in any other presidential administration in history." She talks about how "across America, millions of women are raising families, working full time, going to college, starting their own businesses."
If you are in the audience in your business suit, she's speaking to you. If you're pushing the stroller, she's speaking to you. She's not Jackie O, and she's not Hillary. She's just a reflection of you.
So it's no surprise that yesterday she played the role of Melanie to Heinz Kerry's Scarlett.
"Mrs. Bush knows that some days are more difficult than others when your husband is running for president," said her spokesman Gordon Johndroe, "and she has a lot of empathy for her."