The Silver Fox

And now for something completely different: a down-to-earth First Lady

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I had a small crisis this week.

I was staying at a very stylish hotel in New York City where I knew they always had a bathrobe in the closet, so I left mine at home. I had called room service for coffee, then discovered there was no robe. When the coffee came, I took a sheet off the bed and wrapped it around myself toga style to answer the door. I can imagine what the waiter thought. I can just see him going back to the kitchen and saying, "You'll never guess what I saw in Room 1712!"

-- From the campaign diary of Barbara Bush

America, meet Barbara Bush, taking center stage in national life just in the knick of time. Nancy Reagan had many good qualities, but she was, well, something of a strain: those rail-thin looks, that hard-edged show-biz glitter and no children or grandchildren around to mess things up. The country may be ready for a First Lady who is honest about her size (14), her age (63) and her pearls (fake). She sports sweats on the weekends with no intention of jogging, does her own hair, likes takeout tacos, devours mystery novels, poaches at the net in mixed doubles, teases her husband and speaks her mind. When she is home near her own bathrobe, she wears it outside to walk the dog.

Barbara Bush knows that the two-mile move from the Vice President's 1893 Victorian mansion on Embassy Row to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is more than a change of Zip Codes. As she puts color-coded stickers on the furniture and pictures to signify what goes, what stays and what gets tossed out in this latest move, she is already nostalgic over life as Second Lady. "I got away with murder," says the woman who allowed as how Nancy Reagan should have simply replaced the White House china a piece at a time instead of buying a whole new set, and who suggested that her husband strip down to disprove rumors that he was wounded during a tryst. As she prepares for her new post, she says, "I'm now slightly more careful about what I say." (Pause) "Slightly."

On its face, First Ladyhood looks easy enough: one gets to live in a big house with a large yard, travel a lot and throw fancy dinner parties. Someone else cleans up. But the job -- unpaid and with no days off -- has its pitfalls. The person a pillow away from the presidency is held up to an undefined ideal; she bears all America's conflicting notions about women as wives, mothers, lovers, colleagues and friends. A First Lady should be charming but not all fluff, gracious but not a doormat, substantive but not a co-President. She must defend her husband and smile bravely when he says stupid things. She must look great, even fashionable, when a shower and clean clothes would suffice for anyone else; possess perfect children though such critters do not exist in nature; and traipse around the globe in a suit and sensible pumps when she would rather be home with a good book. She has both a day and a night job, but is not allowed a profession of her own. Hardest of all, she has to appear to love every minute of it.

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