Jewish World Review Sept. 18, 2002 / 13 Tishrei, 5762

Steve and Cokie Roberts

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The First Mother | With the mourning and remembrance of the lives lost that horrible day, one year ago, a comforting presence has once again come forward to soothe the nation. First lady Laura Bush has been on television, in the newspapers, even on Disney Radio, with her calm voice offering reassurance, suggesting to parents that they spend time with their children this week, preferably with the television turned off.

Since last Sept. 11, the first lady has been talking to the children of the country, telling the older ones to find ways to help people, to turn tragedy into something meaningful, and suggesting to the younger ones that they draw pictures about the events of that day, making it easier for them to talk to their parents and teachers about it.

Bush almost automatically assumed the role of nurturer to the nation on Sept. 11, when she was on Capitol Hill, planning to testify on early childhood education before a Senate Committee. Facing the cameras early in the day, she and the senators announced that the hearing was cancelled. Then, as the first lady remembered it in an interview with Cokie, "One reporter asked me, 'Mrs. Bush, what do we say to the children?' And I think really that's when it first occurred to me that we had to say something to our children. Everywhere across the United States, we needed to reassure our children."

Bush drew on her experiences as a teacher, and then she phoned a psychologist for guidance on what to say. She had appointed herself the consoler of children in that terrible week, and in doing so, ended up consoling us all.

The job of consoler is one first ladies have taken on since before we were a country. Martha Washington helped keep the starving, freezing soldiers from deserting during the deathly winter at Valley Forge, as she stitched together their clothes, nursed the sick and prayed with the dying.

Wartime provides a special opportunity for that kind of service, of course. But this has been such a peculiar war. It hit home with a vengeance and then moved to battlefields far away from almost all Americans' experience. But even in the distant land where U.S. bombs were falling, Bush decided she had a role to play, as a fighter for Afghan women. She called for an end to their oppression on what is normally the president's weekly radio broadcast. Mrs. Bush learned that her words touched people when she went shopping a few days later. "The women who worked in the cosmetic counter said to me, 'Thank you so much for saying that.' So I think it was really something that all American women were certainly looking at."

Soon, it seemed as if the first lady was everywhere -- addressing the United Nations, fielding questions at the National Press Club, touring Europe, broadcasting over Radio Free Afghanistan. But her key spot, as it is for all first ladies, is at the president's side. The public role is one thing, and Laura Bush's has significantly increased in the last year, but it's the private role that gives first ladies power.

It's not a subject Mrs. Bush likes to discuss. When President Bush announced that he wanted Osama bin Laden, "dead or alive," his wife was quoted as teasing him afterward, "You gonna git 'im, Bushie?" When asked about the incident, she just laughs and shifts somewhat uncomfortably in her seat. But the president's wife knows that she's really the only person who can say, "Hold on there, dear."

Though Mrs. Bush insists, "I don't like to give him a whole lot of advice. And I don't like to get a whole lot of advice from him, either," she concedes that "there are some things that a mother or a wife or a husband or child would say that no one else could."

That might be the most comforting role this first lady plays. Knowing that she's in the White House with her common sense, her quick humor and her uncloying concern is a source of solace in these troubling times. The political operatives in the administration know that, too, of course. It's no accident that Laura Bush is reaching out over the airwaves in this week of commemoration -- it can only help the president.

But her words help the rest of us as well, especially the children whose parents listen to her advice.

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© 2002, NEA