WASHINGTON -- It can't be easy being a first lady. She's the wife-in-chief in a traditional role, but she also has a brain.
And she has a voice, though it is usually muted or restricted to safe "womanly" concerns -- home, hearth and domestic issues such as health, education and child care.
When the first lady does step into the policy arena, as Hillary Clinton did during her husband's first term, she faces not just scrutiny of her work, but criticism of her audacity. Doesn't she know her place?
Despite role changes beyond 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. -- and notwithstanding the groundbreaking exception of Eleanor Roosevelt -- we seem to prefer that our presidents' wives (and perhaps husbands?) tend to the china and holiday decorations.
Until just recently, Laura Bush had been a quintessential Missis, mostly confining her interests to such uncontroversial concerns as reading. Reading is good. See Mrs. Bush read. See Mrs. Bush smile. Every now and then, we get to see Mrs. Bush quip, as when she spoke at the 2005 White House Correspondents' Association dinner.
When she tried to participate in the larger world, however, she tended to get in trouble and then retreat from the spotlight. In 2005 while touring Egypt, for instance, she was criticized for praising Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for taking a "very bold step" toward democracy with an election that many viewed as a sham.
She also took heat a couple of years earlier from a group of American poets who responded to her invitation to a poetry conference by submitting anti-war poems or declining in protest. Ultimately, Mrs. Bush canceled the affair.
The first lady got her knuckles rapped later for comments made during the Harriet Miers debacle. As liberals and conservatives alike scratched their heads over President Bush's nomination of Miers to the Supreme Court -- a tipping point for many previously loyal Republicans who could no longer defend the president -- Laura Bush suggested that sexism was at play.
Sexism is the mating call of the left, not the right, her critics howled. Again, Mrs. Bush retreated.
And then a few days ago, Laura Bush came out with her dukes up.
The serenely benign first lady has become feisty of late and for a cause few could find reason to criticize. She's steamed about Burma's brutal military government, which recently clamped down on dissidents, killing several and detaining up to 6,000.
Most Americans are by now familiar with news and images of tangerine-clad monks protesting in the streets, but they may know little about Aung San Suu Kyi. A Nobel Prize winner and icon of Burma's democratic movement, she has been under house arrest for nearly 12 of the last 18 years.
Laura Bush wants her released and she wants the military regime to step aside. Well, somebody had to say it.
Wednesday, Mrs. Bush had an article in The Wall Street Journal decrying the treatment of Buddhist monks rounded up and imprisoned under inhumane conditions. The "Saffron Revolution," which was sparked by a 500 percent hike in regime-controlled gas prices, has "unleashed 19 years of pent-up national anger," Mrs. Bush wrote.
It would seem that it also unleashed seven years of the first lady's pent-up emotions.
Burma, and especially the plight of Suu Kyi, got Mrs. Bush's attention in 2002 when a Bush cousin told her about the imprisoned woman. Since then, Mrs. Bush has followed the story and last year began urging the United Nations to take action.
When the first lady speaks, apparently not just her husband listens. Tuesday, she received a call from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, urging her to continue her efforts. He also promised that he would send the U.N.'s special envoy back to the region as soon as possible and would encourage neighboring countries to pressure Burmese leaders to shift power to a democratic form of government.
President Bush, meanwhile, has increased economic pressure on Burma, directing the U.S. Treasury Department to freeze assets of 14 senior members of the Burmese junta. Europe also has tightened sanctions.
Hating juntas and demanding freedom for monks and women warriors for democracy may not be the riskiest political move in American history. But Mrs. Bush's voice has hit the right note and telegraphs to those in danger and despair that through her they have the ear of the world's most powerful leader.
A first lady's voice is a terrible thing to waste.
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