How Does Laura Bush Sleep at Night?

The worst First Lady in recent memory has had no consistent program or agenda to changes things for the better, while at the same time providing PR cover for her husband

BY Susan J. Douglas

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Laura provides PR cover for George, pretending that they're helping children while he screws them through 'No Child Left Behind.'

With the passing of Lady Bird Johnson, we are reminded that First Ladies used to stand for something. She was not as beautiful as Jackie Kennedy, and in the mid-1960s with the war in Vietnam escalating, beautifying America’s highways may have seemed a trivial goal. It wasn’t. Lady Bird Johnson–a successful businesswoman in her own right–combined a disdain for the spread of commercial clutter with a love for the environment that today seems positively progressive in a first lady. She helped her husband advance the Head Start program and civil rights; she spoke publicly in support of the Equal Rights Amendment.

By contrast, what does Laura Bush stand for? Well, at first it was “literacy” and the merits of being a stay-at-home wife who gets her husband (allegedly) to quit drinking. Then she was going to combat the influence of gangs on school children. (Her husband subsequently eliminated this program.) Then there was some hand-waving about women’s heart disease. Her very glitzy website also cites “Gulf Coast Rebuilding” (no comment) and “Global Diplomacy” as top Laura priorities. All of these are advanced with a smile as lock-jawed as Nurse Ratched’s.

As one of the scant 15 percent of likely voters who has a “very unfavorable” assessment of Mrs. Bush (and who finds her high approval ratings a complete mystery), I would like to suggest that she may be the worst First Lady in recent memory. Here are the reasons: First, she has had no consistent program or agenda that has changed anything for the better. Second, she provides PR cover for her husband so she can pretend they’re doing one thing, like helping school children, while he can do another, like screwing them and their teachers through disasters like “No Child Left Behind.” (Another example of being a beard for Bush, she promotes awareness about women’s heart disease while he proposes slashes in Medicaid, 70 percent of whose recipients are poor women.) Third, she has taken absolutely no stand against her husband’s relentless, Shermanesque march across women’s rights. Last and most damning, she is an utter hypocrite, especially when it comes to global rights for women.

Remember how Laura Bush claimed that one of the main reasons for the war in Afghanistan was to liberate women from their burkas? To “kick off a world-wide effort to focus on the brutality against women and children by the al-Qaeda terrorist network and the regime it supports,” she opined in a November 2001 radio address. “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” Really? Seven months later, her husband withheld more than $200 million in funding for programs to support women and to combat AIDS in Afghanistan.

And where has Laura Bush been since, when it was made clear that women would play virtually no role in the post-Taliban government? Where was she when Human Rights Watch reported in July 2003 that violence against girls and women in Afghanistan, including rape, was increasing? Well, in the spring of 2005 she went to visit Afghani women for six hours where she offered “the very best wishes of the American people.” Upon her return, she told Jay Leno things were “very encouraging” for them.

Meanwhile, this mother of two daughters has remained mute during her husband’s six-and-a-half year assault on women’s rights. In addition to appointing two deeply conservative, anti-choice zealots to the Supreme Court, Bush enacted a domestic gag rule in 2004 which allowed HMOs, hospitals and the like to prohibit doctors from providing abortion referrals or even information about abortion. One of his first acts in office was to reinstate a global gag rule, which forbade any agency that got funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development from using those or any other funds (including their own!) to provide or promote abortions. Within a year, there were shortages of contraceptives, clinics had closed, and 16 developing countries (including Afghanistan, which Laura cares so much about) had seen shipments of supplies cut off.

Two months after his inauguration, Bush closed the White House Office for Women’s Initiatives and Outreach. He then made sure that information about issues like pay equity and childcare were removed from the Department of Labor’s website–25 such publications vanished from the Women’s Bureau website alone. Instead, new bogus information, such as the claim that there was a link between having an abortion and getting breast cancer, appeared on the National Cancer Institute’s website. In 2005, the Bush administration weakened the standards for compliance with Title IX (maybe the Bush girls were too busy partying to play any sports).

As one reviews this record and the cynical gaps between Mrs. Bush’s pro-woman-pronouncements and her husband’s determination to keep as many of us as possible barefoot and pregnant, it is hard to imagine how she lives with him. Or herself.

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. Her latest book is Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done (2010).

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