West Wing Story: The First Lady's Grace

Laura Bush said more with her laugh, her glances and her gestures than she did with words last week during our interview with the First Lady and the president. My colleague Howard Fineman and I sat down with the First Couple on Air Force One the day before Thanksgiving for an hour. It was their first joint interview since September 11 and the first time I had ever tried to interview them together.

I wasn't sure how well it was going to work with all four of us (not to mention three aides and a stenographer). Interviews always make for funny personal dynamics. I try to just have a conversation, but the simple act of turning on a tape recorder inevitably changes the tone.

Mrs. Bush, however, immediately established that comfortable tone: she ordered a basket of pretzels. She'd pop one in her mouth and then nudge the basket down to the other end of the table or over to her husband. There we were in the Air Force One conference room with a war going on passing around the pretzels. At one point, a pretzel went AWOL on the president and he started coughing. Mrs. Bush was just beginning to answer a question when she looked over at her husband, who had his hands clasped at his ribcage. "He's giving himself the Heimlich maneuver," she said, breaking into laughter. "She still laughs at my stupid jokes," the president grinned. We never did get back to the question, but I learned more about their dynamic with that playful exchange.

Laura Bush didn't answer a lot of questions in part because her husband was so voluble. He even answered questions for her. But she didn't object or interject. She clearly sensed what we did: the president was in the mood to talk. He was even dramatic, gesticulating often and imitating Secret Service agents in his retelling of events. The key to a good interview (and maybe a good relationship) is that sometimes the best thing to do is shut up and listen. It was obvious that she was listening very carefully. At one point, he misspoke, and she gently, quietly, corrected him. In fact, the transcript reads "inaudible."

But as First Lady lately she has been anything but inaudible. On Tuesday she met with Afghan women in the Diplomatic Room of the White House. Vital Voices--a women's leadership group--brought the women to Washington for a conference at Georgetown University and to meet with U.S. opinionmakers. Their aim: to make sure women are part of Afghanistan's reconstruction. Mrs. Bush was very eager to talk with them--and the press. Despite three attempts by aides to usher reporters out of the room, she kept taking questions. One goal, she said, was "to make sure that women get an education, and right now we are at a very, very crucial time as Afghanistan forms its new government. The stability of Afghanistan, the stability of the region is very dependent on making sure that human rights includes the rights of women and children."

If I had closed my eyes, I could have sworn it was Hillary Clinton talking. My first job in Washington was covering now Senator Clinton as First Lady. In 1995, she spoke--against the State Department's wishes--at the United Nations women's conference in Beijing. It was my first trip with her, and I'd never seen a politician treated like a rock star. The audience of women from around the world went absolutely crazy when Mrs. Clinton said: "Women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights." At the time, it was controversial not only because it redefined human rights but because it put the Chinese on notice that their treatment of women (and girls, so often unwanted under China's one-baby policy) was on par with the treatment of dissidents.

Senator Clinton still cares about the issue; she and several other senators will meet with the visiting Afghan women tomorrow. A former aide to the former First Lady says that it bugs her that Mrs. Bush is getting such good press for taking on the treatment of women under the Taliban. Clinton feels that she took it on when it wasn't such a popular topic; she did speak out for Afghan women on International Women's Day in 1999, for example, which her office happily reminds reporters. Senator Clinton herself reminded us a few weeks ago of her work on this issue. "For the past several years many of us here have consistently condemned the Taliban for their systematic suppression of the fundamental human rights of women," she told reporters. "In the last administration, I worked to oppose our government's recognition of the Taliban, despite pressure from certain interests to do so." Thursday, Mrs. Clinton is scheduled to appear on the "Today" show with one of the visiting Afghan women.

The two First Ladies have not discussed the issue amongst themselves. Clinton's former chief of staff, Melanne Verveer, who now works for Vital Voices, however, was instrumental in arranging for the Afghan women to see the current First Lady. Bush's style is very different from her predecessor's. She has no plans to travel the world solo as a surrogate for her husband. She has no intention of making international women's rights a main focus. For Bush, the education of girls "not just boys," as she said yesterday, is her primary concern in Afghanistan. There will be no speeches about how Saudi women aren't allowed to drive. She is careful to emphasize that she does not lobby on policy. "I don't have any choice in how the new [Afghan] government is made," she told the press yesterday.

The Afghan women that Mrs. Bush met with did not find her demure or deferential. "I was very impressed and moved," says Mary C. Alamshahi, a nurse practitioner who studied medicine in Afghanistan and now lives in California. If Afghanistan can establish an inclusive and stable government, Alamshahi says she would return home after almost two decades living abroad. She added she was very "grateful" that Mrs. Bush used her husband's radio address a few weeks ago to tackle the issue of the Taliban's repression. "She used her platform to give voice to us and the entire world listened," she said. The First Lady seems to know when to talk--and when to listen.