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Laura Bush Was Pro-Choice -- and Dozens of Other Things You Never Knew About America's First Ladies

The media have long treated first ladies as caricatures instead of people. What will that mean for Michelle Obama?
 
 
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Among the many times I had the chance to interview Hillary Rodham Clinton as first lady, on and off the record, one remark she made still lingers with me:

"Who I really am seems less important than what different groups want me to represent."

It really echoed for me the week before Barack Obama's election, as I sat in the White House Yellow Oval Room, a ray of the waning Indian Summer sun slanted across the lap of the outgoing first lady, who had gathered a group of historians, journalists and preservationists around her. She was reflective, the house strangely still. To the historical imagination it was like a palace before a revolution -- in this case, a peaceful election as much a shift of the mind as in policy.

The Obama election has given even the opposition a sense that the nation as a whole had learned to see a Hawaiian-born son of a white woman and an African man who came from Illinois not by any one of those labels, but as a unique, individual, human being. If history holds up, however, the irony is that most folks might not cut his wife, Michelle, that slack.

To me, Laura Bush has always been articulate about her real beliefs, but then again, I actually followed her words and weighed her deeds carefully. It's my business. I do think her Cheshire Cat smile misled many in the media and public to caricature her as a "Stepford wife."

She is a word person who chooses what she says carefully, a habit that made her quotably bland -- no matter how honest her sentiment. This day, she did not restrain her words. She spoke of a genuine regret as she reflected on her incumbency.

It was not really until the second term was under way that it hit her -- a first lady has the power to directly affect the real life of real people. It was an evolving realization but it seemed to convince her when she read a letter from a woman whose life was saved while watching a public service commercial Laura Bush had made about the warning signs of a heart attack for women -- and realized she was having one right then. She got to a hospital before she died.

The public record, however, shows that Laura Bush's campaign for disseminating information about heart disease in women was a small part of her work.

It has included: her prompting increased public museum and library funding; a long-term and diversified advocacy for Afghanistan women; persistent international protest of Burma's human-rights violations and her aid to Burmese refugees; shaping Reading First, which utilizes proven instruction methods to ensure proficiency by the fourth grade; holding regional conferences on training for state and local efforts for at-risk youth; introducing the first breast-cancer prevention effort in Saudi Arabia -- where screenings increased fivefold after her effort; mobilizing the private sector to match federal efforts combating malaria in Africa ...  the list is extensive.

All this, along with offering nuanced responses to issues ranging from stem-cell research to same-sex marriage. In her first days as first lady, she joined Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Clinton as the seventh consecutive first lady to state that she is pro-choice.

Does anybody know this? I doubt it. By Inauguration Day 2001, the caricature of Laura Bush as a prim librarian had been solidified -- a result of the George W. Bush campaign's "anti-Hillary" strategy and the national media toeing the line.

 
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