THROUGHOUT THE 2000 campaign, Laura Bush was asked which past first lady she would most be like. "I think I'll just be like Laura Bush," she said.
Most importantly, the Bush team wanted to assure the public that the new first lady would not be like Hillary Clinton.
She prefers cleaning out the cabinets to cleaning out the Cabinet. Hot chili, not heated debate. After daughter Jenna's appendectomy, Mrs. Bush was at her bedside, not taking on the health care system. As another symbolic gesture, she relocated the first lady's office from the West Wing (where Mrs. Clinton had moved it) to the East Wing.
Fine. Laura Bush should be a different kind of first lady, but not for the reasons she thinks. The world is a different place since the Clintons left the White House. The Bush administration faces a dispirited electorate, economic crises, a war on terrorism and now the threat of a lengthy war with Iraq. Different times call for a different kind of first lady.
But "just Laura" isn't good enough.
So far, Mrs. Bush's tenure is a big disappointment. Promises to reform education and support families have come up empty. And if she really wants us to believe that literacy is important to her, canceling a White House symposium rather than host a writer who promised anti-war poetry was shortsighted.
Perhaps Mrs. Bush wanted to avoid a repeat of Lady Bird Johnson's 1968 Women Doers luncheon, when actress Eartha Kitt accused her of focusing on gardening instead of more pressing issues, such as the Vietnam War and racism. Mrs. Bush's agenda must be comfortable for her, but to an anxious public, it's out of touch.
Some people will think it unfair to criticize the first lady's performance (though her appearance is fair game). Voters elected her husband, not her. Indeed, in 1946 a politician called the first ladyship "the only case of involuntary servitude in America," and argued that Bess Truman should be given a $10,000 salary (she wasn't).
There's no reason the first lady should be given a free pass, and no shortage of scholarship that proves that. History tells us that the first lady exerts significant influence on the president and those around him. Why then do we persist in asking whether hers is a position of power instead of insisting she be accountable for how she wields it? What does it say about the role or status of the first lady if we ask nothing of her?
Wartime is a special test of a first lady's grit. By responding to national crises with sincerity and resolve, past first ladies were able to assuage public fears and anxiety. Lou Hoover reached out to Americans via radio to encourage conservation and compassion during the Great Depression. During World War I, Edith Wilson raised sheep on the White House lawn and sold their wool to benefit the Red Cross while she personally knitted trench helmets.
Throughout World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt united the home front in civil defense and traveled widely (and independently) to visit soldiers and sustain New Deal initiatives. All four of her sons went to war, and she wrote in her memoirs that she "identified with all the other women who were going through the same slow death."
After Sept. 11, Mrs. Bush was called a "comforter-in-chief," but has she really done anything to comfort us since then?
She is a no-show at the tearful partings of so many military families. She has offered no solace to the poor, the elderly or other groups who will suffer during a war. There is an aloofness to Mrs. Bush, M-' la Pat Nixon. A columnist wrote of Mrs. Nixon, "she is really a very nice woman but seems to lack a purpose."
After confronting Lady Bird Johnson, an unapologetic Eartha Kitt said of the first couple, "They are like the father and mother of our country, and we expect them to be responsible for us as a nation."
As an anxious public wonders how to endure a protracted war on terrorism, the first lady has an opportunity -- an obligation -- to respond in a meaningful way. She must be more than "just Laura."
Barbara Friedman is a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and adjunct professor of journalism at Webster University in St. Louis.