During the Clinton years, I often spoke to groups of women (and some men) about the role of the first lady. Feminists usually defended Hillary's usurpation of power, but she was and continues to be a target for those who don't regard a marriage license as a warrant of power for a president's wife.
There was a wave of widespread if not universal relief when Laura Bush accompanied her husband to the White House, making it clear that as a librarian she wanted to continue toward her goal of getting every child to read.
This was in the tradition of pet projects of first ladies, right up there with Lady Bird's beautification of the Nation's Capital, Betty Ford's concern for prescription drug addiction and Rosalyn Carter's advocacy in behalf of mental health. It was personally gratifying and publicly satisfying.
Last week, Laura Bush broke the mold she had fashioned for herself. She subbed for her husband on his weekly radio broadcast with a speech calling attention to the plight of women in Afghanistan. It was a meshing of personality with politics. It was a natural.
The contrast between Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Clinton is striking. While Laura Bush seems comfortable in whatever she wears (whether fashionable or not and often not), Hillary Clinton, at the same stage of her White House years, seemed ill at ease, going through a succession of different hats, headbands, hairdos and color changes in her wardrobe, from pink to black and back again.
Hillary looked as though she was trying too hard to get it right, ever the Wellesley valedictorian, trying to push people around with her ideas because she was ahead of the times. She fought hard but won few battles and alienated many Americans up to the final days in the White House. (The late Barbara Olson got it all down in her best-selling book, "The Final Days.") She was a candidate only New York liberals could love.
When she was booed at the Madison Square Garden fund-raiser for the victims of 9/11, she demonstrated again how many people out there still don't like her. It was a damning reaction at a time when mourners were unified in sensitivity.
By contrast, Laura Bush has been a consoling figure, talking to schoolchildren and going on "Oprah" to allay the fears of children frightened by terrorism. She builds on what appears to be an instinctive maternalism (just like her mother-in-law.) No one doubts the smarts and political savvy of both Bush women, but they don't act as though they're obsessed with "how it plays."
It's the conventional wisdom that first ladies reflect the cultural roles of the women of their times.
There's something to that (with exceptions). Hillary Clinton was trapped in the first stage of abrasive feminism, where a woman had to prove herself to be twice as good as a man, dancing like Ginger Rogers with Fred Astaire, and doing it backwards. But Hillary wasn't Ginger and Bill wasn't Fred.
Laura, on the other hand, seems comfortable "being" rather than "proving." She doesn't strike false notes. She starts where most of us are and builds on that. It wasn't hard for her to focus attention on the al-Qaida cruelty toward women and children. Not only did the Taliban keep schoolgirls from attending school, they kept lots of boys from learning because women who had made up the majority of teachers in Afghanistan
weren't allowed to work in the Taliban years.
Gloria Steinem, with knee-jerk feminist skepticism, argues that the only reason the first lady is taking up women's rights in Afghanistan is to try to close the gender gap in advance of '04.
Women in '00 preferred Al Gore to George W. by 11 points. I don't doubt that the Bush administration sees the first lady's speech as good politics, but it was also the right thing to do. Why not give her credit? The first lady and Gloria Steinem should be on the same team on this one.
The State Department , speaking for the administration, urges that women be allowed to participate in Afghanistan's post-Taliban government.
That can't happen on a large scale because few educated women in Afghan have had government experience. "Afghanistan is, in some respects, still in the 14th century," says the French foreign minister. "We can't wave a magic wand and turn them into a Swedish society."
But we can, as Mrs. Bush suggests, focus attention where attention should be paid: "Only the terrorists and the Taliban threaten to pull out women's fingernails for wearing nail polish." Some gender gaps are infinitely worse than others. In Afghanistan gap is an abyss.