At Home With Laura

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The Supreme Court had made its decision the night before, and on Dec. 13 Laura Bush's husband would claim the presidency. But for weeks another meeting had been scheduled at the Governor's mansion for that same Wednesday night. It was to be the final report on this year's Texas Book Festival, an event that Laura had begun and shepherded for five years. So from 5:30 to just after 7, while her husband prepared his victory speech and waited for a phone call from Vice President Al Gore, Laura sat with some 60 people and listened to reports about book sales, concession revenue, scheduling difficulties and the like. She was attentive, friendly, even casual--not really different from her demeanor at any other meeting, though her mind must have been racing. Then, when it was over, she left quietly and went to prepare for her husband's big evening.

Nothing shows better the interplay between her two defining qualities: her loyalty and her self-possession. Those she has always had, but during her years as first lady of Texas she gained confidence as well. Six years ago, in January 1995, she organized a reading of seven Texas writers as part of the celebrations at the time of her husband's inauguration as Governor. The night before the event, she dreamed she was sinking in Styrofoam. "I knew I was going to have to speak at the reading, and I thought that the writers may not have voted for George," she said. "So I had an anxiety dream." Despite her fears, the event was a big success. She realized how significant it was that her husband wasn't a candidate anymore but the Governor of the state. "Even if the writers had not voted for him," she said later, "they were glad to do it for Texas as opposed to for a candidate." At that moment the opportunities presented by her new forum began to come clearly into focus. Now she will have a grander forum and grander opportunities. Her new role as First Lady might produce its share of anxiety dreams, but judging by her years as first lady of Texas, she will prevail. Reasonable people can differ about how good a Governor George W. Bush has been, but few can dispute that Laura Bush has been the best first lady in years and years, maybe ever.

I've had the opportunity to see her in a variety of different settings. During the time the Bushes have been in Austin, the coincidences of mutual friends, mutual interests and children nearly the same age have put us together socially from time to time. Her composure and her reserve in public have led some to speculate that behind the benign exterior lies a steely woman who, if things get out of hand, is going to be taking names. But that's not her at all. She is not vindictive, and she is not even the least bit manipulative. She is strong about the things she considers important. The best-known example is the way she influenced her husband to stop drinking. Otherwise, she lets smaller issues remain small. Even the five-week wait after Nov. 7 to see who had won the election was "not really that difficult," she told me. "People may not believe that, but I knew George and I would be all right either way. We knew we had worked hard in the campaign, and the wait let us put our lives and even the presidency in perspective."

And she's funny. She likes to kid and tease and make subtle, one-line comebacks. Although she's often described as shy, she's not. She does not cling to the wall at parties and in fact is a skillful host. Although her husband is more voluble, she is not in his shadow or dominated by him. On occasions of state, she will be comfortable and prepared, and important visitors will be impressed by her.

That said, Laura prefers spending time with close friends rather than at the more glittering kind of social events. For one thing, she's not interested in clothes. She has the suits she wears in public (designed by Michael Faircloth of Dallas, who will also design her Inaugural gown), and she has blue jeans, and that's it. Luckily for her, several of her closest friends from childhood live in Austin. Sometimes when she wanted a private refuge for a while, she would call a friend and say, "I'm coming over." It was not unusual to see her here or there having casual lunches. Occasionally, she would go out on the town with friends and quietly become part of the crowd at a place like Antone's, Austin's scruffy and fabulous blues club.

She is a traditional mother and homemaker in the mold of married people in the small Texas town where she grew up. She is a partner in her husband's life, not in his work. But it's a mistake to think that is all she is. She was in no hurry to get married, and was over 30 when she did. She had established a career, first as a schoolteacher and then as a librarian, that used her abilities and interests to good advantage. And she doesn't fit the cliche of a Texas woman. She doesn't have big hair or wear heavy jewelry. Her style says, "You're not supposed to look at me. You're supposed to listen to what I have to say."

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