It's easier to make fun of a first lady than for a first lady to have fun. The scrutiny is ferocious. But for a few diehard Bush-bashing critics, Laura Bush gets rave reviews for her comedy routine at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. If there were an Emmy category for stand-up comedy on C-SPAN, she would be this year's odds-on favorite.
Cedric the Entertainer, who had expected to follow the prez for the evening's laughs, knew he was in trouble long before Laura sat down. Her sallies were stingers, with references to her husband as "Mr. Excitement," in bed by 9 o'clock, and to herself and Lynn Cheney and Karen Hughes as "desperate housewives" who sneak out to watch the Chippendales (male strippers) for post-9 o'clock thrills. "I wouldn't even mention it," she said, "except that Ruth Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor saw us there." The producers of NBC-TV's "Saturday Night Live" want her to host a show.
It's always harder for a woman to get laughs. What made Laura so funny was the way she completely went against type, against all conventional expectation. Naturally, in Washington, where everything has to have a political interpretation, some people didn't get it. "It's not hard to figure out why the White House decided to have Laura upstage George," said David Corn, a columnist for Nation magazine. "Her approval rating is almost twice his."
A first lady's public persona always reflects on the president, of course. In the '04 campaign, Laura was one of George W.'s most valuable assets. Teresa Heinz Kerry, by contrast, hurt her husband with outspoken and unsolicited opinions that arrived in 57 mean-spirited varieties.
The role of the first lady ultimately has to be defined by the person who inherits it. Margaret Truman Daniel, daughter of Harry S., observes in her book about first ladies: "They have all shared the unnerving experience of facing a job they did not choose." She was surprised to learn that her mother, regarded as frumpy and remote by the fashionistas, was the first lady that Jacqueline Kennedy most admired, for successfully defending her privacy.
That's harder to do today. Hillary Clinton, after several slips, used the role of first lady as a steppingstone to the U.S. Senate, and aspires now to make her husband the First Gentleman. The idea of a "co-presidency" didn't work well for the Clintons when they lived on Pennsylvania Avenue, and it may not sell well in 2008. But anyone who doubts that she's running for president needs cataract surgery. The latest clue from the Hillary camp is revealed by Paul Bedard of U.S. News & World Report, who describes how Friends of Hillary are badmouthing John Kerry, who they say "should go away and crawl under a rock." He had his chance, and blew it.
The first lady sets the tone for Washington society, and wields considerable power as a "wife of." Laura and George W. haven't done much Washington entertaining, because, as she says, her husband goes to bed with the chickens. But how Americans respond to the first lady is also about the role of women in society. Women have greater choices today than any women in memory, and Laura, at her best, is a woman for women to measure themselves against, showing how to achieve a distinctive personality with dignity. It helps that we can laugh at ourselves and at everybody else, too. That wasn't always possible.
Laura joked about the way her husband spends vacation days at their Texas ranch chopping wood: "Or as the girls call it, the Texas chainsaw massacre. George's answer to any problem at the ranch is to cut it down with a chainsaw - which I think is why he and Cheney and Rumsfeld get along so well." The secretary of defense, sitting next to me at the correspondents' dinner, laughed heartily at that one. So did his wife, Joyce, sitting across the table.
The president now calls his mate "Laura 'Leno' Bush." If Laura doesn't want to go back to Crawford and Prairie Chapel Ranch, she might consider a career in comedy in the tradition of Lucille Ball. But she has to face the fact that George W. won't be able to stay up late enough to be Desi Arnaz.