The Silver Fox

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

  • Share
  • Read Later

(7 of 7)

It was Barbara's visits to AIDS hospitals in Harlem that nudged her husband into endorsing additional federal funds for fighting the disease when the Reagan Administration was still balking. Similarly, after an early debate when her husband brushed aside a question about the homeless with boiler plate about housing, Barbara exhorted him to make homelessness a campaign issue. "She really talked hard at him," said an aide, "and rode him until he got it right." Barbara's interest in children and literacy, meanwhile, helped Bush commit himself to being the "education President." "Every time he says 'Head Start,' that's Bar," says Sheila Tate, Bush's transition spokeswoman.

Barbara tries to mask her views where they differ from her husband's. Her preferred line on abortion is "I'm not going to tell you my opinion," a perhaps pointedly transparent admission of her pro-choice views, since if she agreed with Bush she would presumably say so. She disagreed behind the scenes with his hardball campaign tactics, masterminded by Jim Baker, Atwater, Roger Ailes and others. Late in the general-election campaign, aides sensed Barbara's unseen hand after speeches were rewritten in a softer tone. "There were drafts of speeches that went into the suite at night and came out the next morning with changes," an aide recalls.

Some staffers credit Barbara with getting George to suddenly pledge cleaner campaign tactics at a fund raiser last fall at Bob Hope's Hollywood spread. The announcement so stunned aides that they disappeared on purpose afterward. But Barbara wasn't all softball. When Bush was resisting advice to air the now famous "straddle ad" in New Hampshire that showed Iowa caucus victor Robert Dole flip-flopping on taxes, Barbara finally chimed in, "I don't see anything wrong with that ad." It ran, and Bush took the state by 10 points.

She won't be guided by astrology, but, like Nancy Reagan, Barbara will take control of her husband's schedule when he begins to suffer, as she did on the eve of the election in November. As Michael Dukakis mounted a last-minute "double red-eye," flying nearly coast to coast and back again on election eve, Bush's handlers argued for a similar marathon. But Barbara put her foot down. "People are going to vote the way they're going to vote," she said. "We're going to Texas."

No First Lady escapes microscopic scrutiny, and before the new family pictures are hung in the second-floor family quarters at the White House, Barbara Bush is likely to offend someone or other, perhaps for her informality, perhaps for her patrician noblesse oblige. Yet First Ladies are more than the sum of their good works. They offer a glimpse into the heart of a President -- if she loves him, he can't be all that bad -- and they often reflect the culture of the times. After eight years of new-money flash and glitz, of appearances over substance, of friends over family, Barbara Bush's unspoken message may be as important as anything she may do: there is honor in * motherhood; it is O.K. to be a size 14; a lined face is the price of living; and growing old is nothing to get frantic about. No small contribution, that.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. Next Page