President Bush's greatest asset is not his former special assistant, Karen Hughes, who will soon be returning to "active duty" following a tour to promote her new book to help him with his re-election campaign. It is his wife, Laura.
I was reminded of this during an interview with her Thursday (April 1) at the White House for my Fox News Channel show, "After Hours."
Laura Bush can keep her cool, even when prodded with selected quotes about her husband from prominent liberals:
- "a miserable failure" - Dick Gephardt
- "a bumbling governor from Texas with a terrible record, who couldn't put three sentences together with a cue card" - Ralph Nader
- "a moral coward" - Al Gore
And from John Kerry: "The Bush administration has run the most inept, reckless, arrogant and ideological foreign policy in the modern history of our country."
In response, Mrs. Bush flinches a little and straightens her already perfect posture as if steeling herself to fight back. She resists the temptation, saying, "I think those are terrible quotes. I'm sorry you read them to me. . I think it just shows what a very, very brutal campaign season we're going to have. Because it sounds to me that people on the other side are saying whatever they want to say, whether there's truth to it or not. They're just saying the worst things they could possibly say about my husband. And, of course, none of those things are right. No one wants to hear things (like this) about the person they love. But I also think the American people don't really like it."
She continues, noting that the "other side only says terrible things . and never says what their own plans are, or what they would do differently, what their vision is." Ah, the "vision thing," to recall her father-in-law's famous and dismissive line during the 1988 campaign. It's one of many lessons Mrs. Bush and her husband have learned from that experience.
Didn't the president promise to bring a "new tone" to Washington? Did he fail?
She laughs and responds, "I think they (Democrats) have failed. I think they are the ones who don't want a new tone in Washington. I think that if there were a new tone in Washington, then it would benefit my husband. And they are determined not to do anything to benefit my husband."
Almost bristling (though she has just come from a workout and is so cool she isn't perspiring), she responds to the charge by former anti-terrorism aide Richard Clarke that President Bush did not make fighting terror a top priority before Sept. 11, 2001: "I know that my husband was absolutely serious about his responsibility to the United States. When he was sworn in with the Oath of Office, he swore to protect the people of the United States and the Constitution of the United States. I know he took that very, very seriously."
Surprisingly, Mrs. Bush takes a marketplace approach to much of the "culture war," saying it is similar to cultural issues we have dealt with throughout our history. She cites Prohibition and the temperance movement as ways people tried to change the culture of the time. She prefers an approach that involves more parental responsibility when it comes to monitoring TV and discussing the content of films. She approves of sponsor boycotts and informing advertisers and networks about offensive programming, tuning out the bad and patronizing the good. This may startle some, as the Congress and the Federal Communications Commission threaten higher fines and other actions for expressions of indecency.
On another cultural issue, abortion, she takes a pass. On the day the president signs a bill that would impose penalties for unborn babies killed during the commission of a federal crime, Mrs. Bush says she doesn't think legislation will solve the debate about abortion, noting there are "diverse opinions" and that there are "good people on both sides of the issue."
Laura Bush is the type of "kinder and gentler" person her father-in-law wished to see multiplied throughout the nation. She appeals to a sense of decency and fairness that has always been at the heart of America's sense of itself. The president would do well to get her out on the campaign trail and to give her a prominent speaking role at the Republican Convention this summer.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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