The Silver Fox

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

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Yet, in an era when the concept of First Lady seems like a stuffy anachronism, Barbara Bush may prove to be the right woman in the right place. She has projects -- literacy, cancer research, education -- that predate her husband's bug for politics. As she heads for 64, with no regrets about having poured her energies into raising her family, she seems to have enough heart left over to suffer fools gladly. Years of good works behind her, she is the embodiment of the kinder, gentler world that her husband so gauzily evoked during the campaign.

Like many political wives, Barbara has devoted her life to her husband, the first man she ever kissed, with whom she has survived a wartime separation, 44 years of marriage, 29 moves, the death of a child, public rumors of his infidelity and the rigors of three national campaigns. Through it all, she has remained defiantly independent. Her Secret Service code name -- Tranquillity -- belies the fact that she has several hot buttons. Criticism, particularly of her husband, moves her to anger, as it did in 1984, when she suggested to reporters questioning the Bushes' wealth that a word that rhymes with rich might be an appropriate label for Geraldine Ferraro. She can cut off an interview with a wave of the hand, having been burned once too often by those who talk sweetly but interview harshly (as when Jane Pauley asked her, "Your husband is a man of the '80s, and you're a woman of the '40s. What do you say to that?").

She refers to Ann Richards, who delivered a stinging critique of her husband at the Democratic National Convention, as "that woman." As for Ted Kennedy's famous "Where was George?" line, Barbara can only say, "He shouldn't even say George Bush's name." Though she has spent much of her life in Texas, this product of tony Rye, N.Y., can still summon a patrician bearing to cut the uppity down to size. The next President says she is "more direct" than he is. Says campaign manager and Republican Party Chairman Lee Atwater: "She can spot a phony a mile away." Her children have a nickname for her: the Silver Fox.

Barbara and George Herbert Walker Bush have striking yet compatible differences. He hates to quarrel; she once liked it. She kids him about being too big for his britches, especially his style of britches. She particularly goes after the cowboy boots he sports for both day and evening wear. "They've got his initials in gold on the side -- just two of them, not four of them -- and the Lone Star State star. In color." He kids her about suspending the usual rules of conduct when it comes to her English springer spaniel, Millie. "That dog literally comes between us at night," he complains. "She wedges right up between our heads, and Bar likes it. She's failing with the discipline. She was better with the kids than she is with the dog." Millie is pregnant, Bush announced last week.

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