WASHINGTON - Earlier this year, when Lynne Cheney was shopping for shoes at a suburban Virginia mall, the saleswoman helping her looked around and remarked to the vice president's wife: "Do you notice all the security? I think Mrs. Powell or Mrs. Cheney must be here."
Few who had followed her career would have guessed that this outspoken, at times combative, conservative would assume such a low profile in the Bush administration that she could try on pumps unrecognized.
Given her credentials as one of the premier forces in the incendiary "culture wars" of the past quarter-century, analysts predicted that Cheney would emerge as a highly vocal and visible second lady, a political spouse who'd be "hard to muzzle," as one colleague said at the time, an influential presence in the mold of Hillary "Buy-one-get-one-free" Clinton.
But as part of a White House that frowns on public wave-making, Cheney, the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a conservative spear-thrower on CNN's Crossfire, has stayed conspicuously out of the fray.
Now, Cheney, 61, is beginning to take a more active role in administration activities, campaigning for Republican candidates and acting as host for educational events such as yesterday's Constitution Day program at the vice president's residence and a future forum for scholars on the importance of American history instruction, her signature issue. Yesterday, she book-ended her second lady activities with brief TV interviews.
But instead of railing against political correctness, as she did as NEH chief, or arguing the conservative view on such issues as gun locks or minimum wage, as she did on TV, Cheney now generally remains on safe, traditional political-wife territory.
She has written a best-selling children's book on patriotism and, putting aside a policy book she started before her husband became vice president, is deep into a second children's book on heroic American women.
In an interview at the vice president's Queen Anne-style mansion, which she has redecorated in light, muted tones with contemporary paintings on loan from museums, Cheney says Crossfire-style debating is not something she would enjoy doing at this point in her life.
"There's a lot of dramatic Sturm und Drang with Crossfire," she says. "What I'm doing now seems more rewarding. One of the real privileges of being married to the vice president is that I can go to places [such as schools] where things are going right and hold [them] up and say: 'Look what's happening. Here's a model.' And that's a great thing to be able to do."
Even as Cheney campaigns for Republican congressional candidates, headlining lunches and private fund-raisers such as one she attended last month for Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, she praises the current administration but leaves the stinging partisan jabs to others.
"She's more of a diplomat in this role," says Judith Richards Hope, a longtime friend and a Washington lawyer who worked in the Ford and Reagan administrations.
"She is very aware she is the second lady, not the television star. Her views, in my opinion, haven't changed, but I think they're presented with a little more sugar."
The only second lady ever to hold a job outside the administration, Cheney is still a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank where she has worked since 1993.
An author of both fiction and nonfiction works, Cheney says that when she first contemplated life in the White House, she thought: "I don't want to change very much. I'd kind of like to keep on doing what I'm doing."
But, in fact, she put aside the book on education she had been working on to write America, A Patriotic Primer and her current project, A is for Abigail Adams, both for children.
One person close to Cheney said she sidelined her book on education for fear people might confuse her views with administration policy. "She didn't want to put the administration in the position of having to defend her book," this person said.
Marshall Wittmann, a conservative political analyst, says Cheney's more restrained public persona these days is not surprising, given the tone of this White House.
"It's the nature of this administration not to want anyone with sharp elbows" to engage in the polarizing debates over cultural and social issues, he says.
Still, the themes Lynne Cheney sounded during the 1980s and 1990s, when she infuriated liberals with her emphasis on Western cultural traditions over multicultural studies and attacks on political correctness, echo in her speeches today.
She still argues, as she did as NEH chief, that public school educators place too much emphasis in their curriculums on what's wrong with America as opposed to what's right.
Recently, she contributed to a report by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation that criticized the National Education Association's proposed public-school lesson plans for Sept. 11. The report argued that the lesson plans stressed tolerance and feelings over history and civics.
But for someone whose reputation was built on searing repudiations of political correctness in academia - where, she once argued, an "exquisite consciousness of race and gender" gave short shrift to such traditional white male figures as Washington and Madison - her current efforts strike a notably inclusive tone.
Her new children's primer was described by one reviewer as "Norman Rockwell meets Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition" for its emphasis on diversity. And she recently received an award from a group that celebrates the life of abolitionist Frederick Douglass for her efforts to recognize such African-American heroes.
For her part, Cheney says she has always been a proponent of teaching children about both the traditional figures, such as the Founding Fathers, and those from a variety of backgrounds.
Her earlier writings, she says, were mischaracterized by the academic world "in which thinking that doesn't represent the hard left tends to be viewed as extreme. I'm now in a public arena where, thankfully, a more common sense view prevails."
With a doctorate in 19th-century British literature and a 38-year marriage to her high school sweetheart from Casper, Wyo., Cheney is said to exert a quiet influence in the administration.
"She's never been shy," says Kenneth Adelman, a longtime friend of the Cheneys. "I'm sure she tells the vice president every night of his life what her views are."
As education adviser to Bush during the presidential campaign, she cultivated many ideas that became part of the president's education bill.
Mary Matalin, counselor to the vice president, recalls that when she talked with the Cheneys at their home about joining the staff, Mrs. Cheney addressed Matalin's concerns about needing flexibility because of her young children.
"She said we want women to be able to contribute but also be able to have a balanced life," Matalin says.
Matalin calls Cheney "my pure definition of feminism." Yet the second lady - whose mother was a deputy sheriff in Casper and whose grandmother raised five children in a tent - says that while she is an advocate for women's rights, she's not comfortable calling herself a feminist.
"I think feminism made a great mistake when it veered off into a direction where there are a whole series of political stands you have to take in order to be considered a member in good standing," says Cheney, who parts company with many feminists in her opposition to abortion rights, for instance.
She also differs with many feminists in her reticence on the issue of gay rights, even though one of her two daughters, Mary, is openly gay and is working for a Republican group that is trying to build bridges to the gay community.
Asked whether having a daughter who is lesbian has caused her to think about gay-related issues in a way she otherwise might not have, Cheney says, "I'm not sure at all. It's really hard to be self-analytical about a whole different life. Mary is just a terrific human being."
"Your family is your family," she adds, "and we are an extremely close family."
Because of the continuing terrorist threat, the vice president has spent much of the past year in the shadows or secured at undisclosed locations, often with his wife.
Friends say such isolation has been difficult for Mrs. Cheney - mostly because she can't see her grandchildren, who spend much time at the vice president's mansion, during those periods.
A self-described "nudge" to her husband, especially on issues related to his heart disease, Cheney is the diet enforcer and an avid exerciser. She often sits in on meetings with the vice president's schedulers to make sure his days are not overloaded.
The second lady's more tempered tone has quashed early assumptions that the Washington-savvy writer and scholar would upstage the soft-spoken Texas librarian who was to become first lady.
Cheney and Laura Bush do not socialize much. But the two women, who share an interest in education, are said to have a warm, respectful relationship.
Cheney has said that, if the president asks her husband to join him on the ticket again in 2004, it's fine with her. Though she toyed with the idea of running for the Senate from Wyoming back in 1994, she says such a job would take her away from her husband too much. Nor is she interested in returning to the cultural battlefield.
Marguerite Sullivan, a longtime friend and colleague, says that even before the couple moved into their new home, Cheney had drifted away from the high-decibel debates of her past.
"I don't think it's a conscious effort," Sullivan says. "It's where she's at at this moment in her life."