TOPICS > Politics

First Ladies Seek to Define their Political Role

October 25, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Laura Bush and Teresa Heinz Kerry — two women standing by their men in this campaign, both knowing the outcome will have major consequences for their lives.

Different paths brought them to this common point. Laura Bush had a career as a teacher and librarian, but quit it all at 30 to marry George Bush and campaign with him for Congress.

She never looked back. Teresa Heinz Kerry spent 25 years as a traditional wife and mother until her husband, wealthy ketchup heir turned senator, John Heinz, was killed in a 1991 plane crash. Only then did she go to work, running the $1.2 billion Heinz philanthropies. Both women share a certain ambivalence about the title: First lady.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you have said in many interviews you’ve said on many occasions you don’t like the title of “first lady.” Why not?

LAURA BUSH: Well, it’s there, there’s something artificial about it. I think, I think that’s what I don’t like about it. I’d like to just be “Laura Bush” and “the wife of the president,” because that’s what I think I am. I think there’s sort of a title. You know, “First Lady” seems sort of artificial to me.

MARGARET WARNER: You were quoted telling somebody when asked about the title, you said, “ick.”

TERESA HEINZ KERRY: No. Never said that. It’s not a word I use. But, you know, titles don’t, I have other things to do.

MARGARET WARNER: Their ambivalence is well founded, says Gil Troy, author of a book on presidential couples.

GIL TROY: First ladies delude themselves that they can be characters in their own right. But we’ve seen that when first ladies go too far, when they stray too much from the very clear script that the American people have written for them, that there’s a backlash.

And again and again and again, the message is, “You need to be within that realm. You need to be within the boundaries.”

MARGARET WARNER: Both women say they disagree.

TERESA HEINZ KERRY: You know, I don’t think of limits in terms of people. I think people should be who they are.

LAURA BUSH: Well, I think the American public really wants the first lady to do whatever she wants to do. I think they, you know, if women are activists, I think they think that’s great.

If women stay home and support their husbands, I think they think that’s fine.

MARGARET WARNER: But both do see one red line a first lady can’t cross: Trying to share her husband’s official powers, as Hillary Clinton did heading the health care task force.

LAURA BUSH: It’s not an office. You’re not elected to it.

TERESA HEINZ KERRY: I would have asked, or suggested, that I be appointed an honorary chair, not the full chair, unless I were willing to go through the Senate confirmation proceeding, as any other cabinet or high-up advisor.

I also think, from a very practical political point of view, if the issue succeeds, great, but if it didn’t — it doesn’t, as it did not, then the president lost one, she lost one, and the issue lost. So, why jeopardize so much also?

MARGARET WARNER: So how do they find a role in positive terms? Laura Bush has used it to continue her advocacy for early child education and reading.

But she was surprised at the power of her bully pulpit especially after 9/11 whether she emerged as what Newsweek called the nation’s comforter in chief.

LAURA BUSH: I think this happens to every first lady, but it takes a little bit of a while toe really realize what a forum you have. And when I made the radio address, the presidential radio address about the plight of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban, right after that, I happened to be in Austin and I went shopping and the women who sold cosmetic in the cosmetics counter as I came into the store said to me, thank you very much for speaking out about the women in Afghanistan.

And I realized two things: First, the solidarity that American women felt as they looked at Afghanistan. But I also saw that because I spoke out, I had a forum that I really hadn’t realized maybe the power of that opportunity to be able to speak out before then.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet the most important part of the role for her is supporting her husband. His advisers say her steadiness brought him through his early rootless years.

MARGARET WARNER: Many people who know you well say he wouldn’t be in this White House if he hadn’t married you. Do you think that’s true?

LAURA BUSH: I have no idea whether or not that’s true. Who can say? Who can say that?

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think he would have found the focus in his life.

LAURA BUSH: Sure. I’m sure he would have.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think he would have stopped drinking?

LAURA BUSH: Probably.


LAURA BUSH: Because he has a lot of discipline. He is a very disciplined person.

MARGARET WARNER: President Bush says her serenity has been invaluable in helping him weather the post-9/11 problems of the presidency but she isn’t, as she puts it, a contemporary woman.

LAURA BUSH: I just feel like I am. I had traditional women’s jobs, but, you know, I don’t think you have to be a lawyer or a journalist to not be considered non-traditional. And I hope that all of us in the United States respect the jobs that women have traditionally done.

And one of the things I’ve worked on is to try to encourage people to choose teaching as a career because teachers are so important in our society.

MARGARET WARNER: Mrs. Heinz Kerry implied she would like to be a more activist first lady. She said would gladly embrace the role’s traditional duties but she doesn’t want to give up her job with the Heinz philanthropy, awarding grants to environmental and social service institutions

TERESA HEINZ KERRY: The work that I’ve done, and that I want to do, is to be able to enable communities and people to lift themselves. And it’s different in different places.

And I’m good at doing that, because I’m good at convening people of disparate points of views, market forces, policy, labor, civic, NGO’s. I like to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: And so you would want to continue to do this, running the Heinz endowment as first lady.

TERESA HEINZ KERRY: Yeah. I mean as chairman. I’m not the president. I’m not there day to day. I’m not the president.

MARGARET WARNER: Is it a paid position?

TERESA HEINZ KERRY: I don’t take pay. I could. It’s pro bono work.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that continuing to do that would conflict with other roles of the first lady, perhaps helping the president be the best president he can be?

TERESA HEINZ KERRY: I couldn’t possibly tell you, because I’ve not been there, what it would do in terms of my involvement with the work that I do but would I ever jeopardize my husband’s well-being because of that? No.

MARGARET WARNER: So just how much of her own person can a first lady be in what she says and does publicly? Laura Bush rarely voices an opinion at odds with administration policy.

MARGARET WARNER: Your husband once described you as “the perfect wife” of a governor. And another time, he said, “I have the best wife for the line of work I’m in, because she doesn’t try to steal the limelight.”

LAURA BUSH: (Laughs)

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see yourself that way?

LAURA BUSH: Sure, absolutely. I mean, I would never run for president. I would’ve that’s just not something that’s in my temperament. And I’m very glad to support him.

MARGARET WARNER: For Teresa Heinz Kerry, such deference may be more of a struggle. Her outspokenness has already stirred controversy, but she fiercely defends it. Too often, she said, women are allowed to run the household, but don’t get a hearing when talking about current affairs.

TERESA HEINZ KERRY: But if you’re going to speak about this, “you don’t know how to read and write.” “You didn’t go to college.” “You didn’t go to school.” And you know what, what we know, we know. And it’s valuable.

And it’s not to be compared with anybody else’s knowing but it’s very valuable. And it’s time that the country here, our country, all countries really listen. I think women earned their right to speak and to have opinions.

MARGARET WARNER: Are there candid comments made in this campaign that you regret making?

TERESA HEINZ KERRY: No, not at all.

MARGARET WARNER: Even if they distracted from your husband’s message?

TERESA HEINZ KERRY: What they do to him I regret but not what I said.

MARGARET WARNER: So what does this say to people about Sen. Kerry?

TERESA HEINZ KERRY: I can only repeat to you what people said. If he is married to a woman who thinks and speaks her mind, he is a strong man and we like it.

MARGARET WARNER: Just how true that is will be apparent eight days from now.