Will We Miss Laura Bush?

In Forbes' "In Praise of Laura Bush," Tunku Varadarajan calls the her "a great lady" who "represents quiet grace" and doesn't worry her pretty head about policy. Talk about damning with faint praise!

In contrast to the rest of the White House gang, says Varadarajan, Laura Bush will be missed. No one's ever really minded Laura Bush much; in fact, she's been noteworthy for the lack of strong feelings she's elicited. Sure, "Stepford" has been tossed around — but she was never Cindy McCain fun — and with her vaguely not-anti-choice sentiments and "stand" against the Burmese junta, she's not so gung-ho ideological as a Palin. And let's face it, given what she was allied with, plenty of people would have kept a low profile. This, in Varadarajan's view, were her strengths: those of an "old-fashioned First Lady" who took a back seat to her husband's antics. Did she deceive a nation into war? Well, no. And subvert the justice system? Not as such. Did she oversee the biggest financial meltdown in history? Negative. Well, when you put it that way, you're right, she's great! Hence, one of the most patronizing paragraphs ever written:

Laura Bush was self-effacing by choice, and by an exquisite understanding of her role in the White House...Mrs. Bush is of a certain American type: wholesome, inclined to good works, a homemaker and mother, a supporter of the man she married, a smiling hostess. She is not flashy or colorful, overly intellectual or palpably shrewd, demonstrably independent or politically aggressive.

Which, he feels, is how a First Lady should be.

My guess, as America changes, is that the Laura Bush type will fade away, and that more and more first ladies will be (however one interprets the phrase) "people in their own right"—and thus, potentially, a huge pain to the body politic. (Think Cherie Blair ...) There is some danger that Michelle Obama, a forthright and independent woman, could hew more to the Hillary model than to the Laura Bush way —although her demeanor in the election campaign suggests that she's not unaware of the public boundaries that Hillary, as first lady, failed to respect.

If Varadarajan is hoping the tragically "forthright and independent" Michelle Obama will hew to the Laura Bush mold, he's in for a rude shock. First Ladies are, I fear, very much "people in their own right" and, dare I say it, we take this into account when we cast our ballots. (If he wanted to get into a serious discussion of the real issue of partnership and responsibility in a more complex age — which he obviously does not — I'd argue that the very "shrewdness" and personality he bemoans has, not shockingly, correlated with an increase in public exposure. No one is being "tricked" into a puppet government here.) Because, it may appall him to know, some people like the idea of a leader whose marriage allows for partnership and mutual influence.

In an ideal world, yes, we could patronize First Ladies — the international model, in some ways, for American women — who hewed to the "certain American type" of docile dim-wits he seems to have derived vaguely from 1950s sitcoms. Because, while, as he tells us, this is how First Ladies have been for the past 60 years (neatly stripping them of any struggles, strengths and personality), a First Lady unwilling — or unable — to involve herself with her husband's government is, tragically, probably a thing of the past. Which is too bad: the Bush presidency, helmed by this archetype, turned out so well!

In Praise of Laura Bush [Forbes]