Laura Bush: Policy Maker, Not Stereotype
On Sunday, First Lady Laura Bush revealed a new side of her persona to the American people: policymaker. Describing herself "involved for a long time in policy," Mrs. Bush decried the Stepfordesque stereotype she claimed is applied to her. But given her past public statements and policy roles to date, Americans should be forgiven for chuckling in response.
The still popular First Lady made her comments during an attempt to defend the indefensible, her husband's veto of the expansion of the wildly successful and even more popular State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP). Mrs. Bush accused the Democrats of demagoguery, calling S-CHIP a "perfect issue" for bludgeoning the President:
"It's really easy to blame people for so-called voting against children."
Laura Bush then went on the make her surprising claim about her centrak role as policy maker in the White House:
"The fact is I've been involved for a long time in policy, and I think I just didn't get a lot of coverage on it. I was stereotyped as being a certain way because I was a librarian and a teacher...which are considered traditional women's careers."
As Stephen Colbert noted in 2006, "reality has a well known liberal bias." What Laura Bush sees as a stereotype is instead the appropriate reaction of the American people conditioned to the banality of what she says - and does.
For example, take the First Lady's penchant for diminishing the war in Iraq. As Perrspectives documented back in April, an out-of-touch Laura Bush was able to insult American troops and their families three times in under a year. Appearing on the Today Show, the First Lady in April offered the American people this shining nugget of detachment and tone-deafness:
"No one suffers more than their President and I do."
Laura Bush's shocking callousness today is hardly her first offense. In February, the First Lady cautioned Americans against being disheartened by the occasional blast in Baghdad:
"Many parts of Iraq are stable now. But, of course, what we see on television is the one bombing a day that discourages everybody."
That calming assessment was just the latest from the consistently upbeat - and seemingly medicated - First Lady. In May 2006, Mrs. Bush casually dismissed the consensus negative view of Iraq shared by the American people:
"I don't really believe those polls. I travel around the country, I see people, I see their response to my husband, I see their response to me...A lot of people come up to me and say, 'Stay the course.'"
But if Laura Bush can be forgiven for her casual disregard for the concerns of the American people (after all, it runs in the family), her role as self-proclaimed policy wonk rightly deserves the opprobrium it receives.
For the most part, the First Lady has been consigned to the backwater of Bush White House policy initiatives. Ironically, most of her symbolic roles reinforce her image as the mom/teacher. For example, President Bush during his 2006 State of the Union Address announced that his wife would head up something called the Helping America's Youth Initiative which encourages "caring adults to get involved in the life of a child." The year before, President Bush used the 2005 SOTU to proclaim that his wife would lead an anti-gang initiative. Using funds from the President's Faith-Based Initiative, the First Lady would help "bring hope to harsh places." As for brokering a peace deal between the Bloods and the Cripps, that apparently remains on her to do list. (As Jay Leno suggested, Laura Bush could rework Nancy Reagan's old tag line, "Just Say Yo.")
The one exception to Laura Bush's litany of symbolic tasks has been on HIV/AIDS. There, she has served as her husband's global ambassador on AIDS. While the United States has at least supported that effort with money, the results of her performance for AIDS victims and the health care professionals battling the disease haven't been pretty.
As I wrote in 2006, Laura Bush and the U.S. delegation to international AIDS conferences have been instrumental in blocking increased funding, removing language involving drug addicts, prostitutes and homosexuals and perhaps worst, perpetuating the dangerously counterproductive abstinence agenda demanded by the American religious right:
The typically smiling Mrs. Bush blithely ignored these and other controversies and contradictions central to the American policy of AIDS. The First Lady told the assembled delegates:
"In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, new data shows that Africa's ABC model of AIDS prevention has led to dramatic declines in HIV infection rates in young men and women...All people need to know how AIDS is transmitted, and every country has an obligation to educate its citizens. This is why every country must also improve literacy, especially for women and girls, so that they can make wise choices that will keep them healthy and safe."
But when it comes to the ABC's of AIDS (abstinence, be faithful, condoms), the United States seems to have forgotten the alphabet. Almost from its inception, Bush's $15 billion AIDS initiative PEPFAR (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) has come with conditions attached. Bowing to the religious right, the White House has steered over $1 billion to religious groups stressing abstinence and undermining condom education and distribution programs. It's no wonder a defensive Laura Bush was forced to defend her husband's wildly unrealistic focus on abstinence during her last visit to Africa in January:
"I'm always a little bit irritated when I hear the criticism of abstinence, because abstinence is absolutely 100 per cent effective in eradicating a sexually transmitted disease."
Pioneering Ugandan AIDS activist Noerine Kaleeba could only ponder in amazement the effort led by the First Lady:
"I have met President Bush twice. He strikes me as a very brilliant, very passionate and very caring person. But when I contrast the President Bush that I have met with the policies and practices that are coming out of the United States, I can't reconcile it."
As it turns out, it is Laura Bush who can't seem to reconcile people's perceptions with her own self-image as a White House policy player. On this as in so many other areas, she is out of touch.