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Desperate White House Wife
Episode 1: The Ranch Hand
Profile of Laura Bush
By Elisabeth Bumiller
At the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, President Bush and Ron Hutcheson, the group's president, appreciated Laura Bush's wit.

WASHINGTON — When Laura Bush wisecracked at the White House Correspondents' Association's annual dinner on Saturday night that she was a "desperate housewife" married to a president who was always sound asleep by 9 p.m., the popular first lady accomplished two things. She brought down a very tough house, and she humanized her husband, whose sagging poll numbers are no match for her own.

Judging from the laughter in the Washington Hilton ballroom at Mrs. Bush's words - "George's answer to any problem at the ranch is to cut it down with a chain saw, which I think is why he and Cheney and Rumsfeld get along so well" - Mrs. Bush has a future in political stand-up comedy.

Whether her cheeky one-liners will shore up her husband as he struggles with Social Security, gas prices and combative Democrats is another question entirely. But her zingers showed how much the White House relies on her to soften her husband's rough edges at critical moments, much as she did with her extensive travels and fund-raising in the 2004 campaign.

First Lady Laura Bush
"The deprecation of her husband was eye-popping," said Kenneth M. Duberstein, a chief of staff in Ronald Reagan's White House, who had a front-row seat at the dinner. "Every husband and wife who hears the story that she told about him last night, that he's asleep at 9 p.m., can relate to that. And if you can get people to relate to you as president, it's a step forward. Last night George Bush became more likable because of his wife."

Mrs. Bush made fun of not only her husband (and Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld) but also her mother-in-law, the former first lady Barbara Bush, whom she likened to Don Corleone in "The Godfather." In front of 2,500 guests, she described time spent at her in-laws' summer home in Maine like this: "First prize, 3 days' vacation with the Bush family. Second prize, 10 days."

White House officials cast Mrs. Bush's performance as an attempt at fun, not a political calculation, although they said the idea came from one of the more shrewd political animals at the White House, President Bush. "Honest, the president just said: 'Why don't you try to do it this time? Let's mix it up a little bit,' " Susan Whitson, the first lady's press secretary, said after the dinner. "This was the first opportunity that she's had to show the press corps and the rest of the world that side of her."

Barbara Bush, mother of current US President George W. Bush

The first lady's lines were written by Landon Parvin, a longtime Washington speechwriter who does jokes for Mr. Bush and who wrote both comedy and serious speeches for Ronald Reagan. More to the point, Mr. Parvin wrote the lyrics to "Secondhand Clothes," the song-and-dance routine that Nancy Reagan performed to the tune of "Secondhand Rose" at the 1982 Gridiron dinner in Washington.

That performance, which lampooned the first lady's taste in designers, was a hit after a string of public relations disasters, from Mrs. Reagan's supervision of the purchase of a $200,000 set of White House china to the trunkloads of dresses she took for a week of partying at the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana. Press coverage of Mrs. Reagan was subsequently more positive, and "Secondhand Clothes" is still cited as a reason.

In Mrs. Bush's case, playing off "Desperate Housewives" was a natural, even though Ms. Whitson said that Mrs. Bush had never actually seen the racy ABC hit show. Ms. Whitson said the first lady had heard about the characters and plot from the Bush twins, Jenna and Barbara, who are fans, and was planning to watch the entire first season on a DVD she has at home.

Ms. Whitson said Mr. Parvin sat down with the first lady some weeks ago to work out ideas. He then wrote a script and helped Mrs. Bush with her timing and delivery over several days of rehearsals, including one run-through shortly before the dinner. The first lady went on right after dessert, as Mr. Bush was at the lectern launching into the traditional presidential stand-up routine, in this case rehashing some of his worst jokes from the 2004 campaign.

Mrs. Bush suddenly got up and "interrupted" her husband, saying, "Not that old joke; not again." Then she added, as the audience laughed: "I've been attending these dinners for years and just quietly sitting there. I've got a few things I want to say for a change."

George W Bush driving at his ranch

Ms. Whitson said that while Mr. Bush was in on the setup, he did not know what his wife would say. He reacted mostly by cackling with a beet-red face, including when his wife said, "George, if you really want to end tyranny in the world, you're going to have to stay up later."

Mr. Parvin, who said in an interview before the dinner that writing a speech about the Iran-contra scandal was a lot easier than humor, termed self-deprecating jokes essential for presidents. As a joke writer, he said that his most important task was to meld personality and topicality.

"First of all, you get the person's character in your head," he said. "But a lot depends on what's going on at the time. It's just a feeling that's in the air. So you take that feeling and distill it down to lines that reflect the perception of that person's character."

Or as Mrs. Bush noted on Saturday night about her husband and the ranch in Texas: "George didn't know much about ranches when we bought the place. Andover and Yale don't have real strong ranching programs. But I'm proud of George. He's learned a lot about ranching since that first year when he tried to milk the horse. What's worse, it was a male horse."

Mr. Cheney did not escape the first lady, either. "It's always very interesting to see how the ranch air invigorates people when they come down from Washington," she said. "Recently, when Vice President Cheney was down, he got up early one morning, he put on his hiking boots and he went on a brisk 20- to 30-foot walk."

Dich Chaney, George Bush and Laura Bush

Mr. Parvin said there was an advantage to writing for presidents and, by extension, their wives - because it's easier to get a laugh. "I noticed it first with Reagan," Mr. Parvin said. "Reagan would come into the East Room, and he would have a little throwaway line, and it would get a laugh, and it wouldn't have gotten a laugh with most people. What it did was break the tension. It's the unexpected, I guess. People don't expect presidents to be funny."

Guests at the White House press dinner said the unexpected was a big part of Mrs. Bush's success. "It came as a complete surprise, and she knocked everybody's socks off," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, who attended the dinner as a guest of The New York Post.

As for the political benefit to the president, Mr. Schumer said: "It's not going to make everybody say, 'We're for Social Security privatization now.' But around the edges, it helps."

Mr. Parvin, 56, who writes mostly for Republicans but also for Democrats he likes, like Bill Clinton's friend Vernon Jordan, agreed that presidential humor was "not important" in the scheme of things.

On the other hand, it can't hurt. "Everybody wants to do well," Mr. Parvin said. "Someone said humor is like standing up naked in front of an audience, then turning around and saying, 'What do you think?'"

Profile: Laura Bush

First Lady Laura

"I'm going to give you some reasons tonight to put me back in," joked President George Bush in a recent campaign speech. "But perhaps the most important reason of all is so that Laura has four more years."

The comment was perhaps only half in jest.

With high approval ratings, Laura Bush has become one of the key weapons in the Republicans' campaign to hold onto the White House.

The former librarian and teacher has traditionally been presented as the quiet and caring wife and mother - but in this, her husband's last election battle, she has moved decisively into the limelight - proving herself a confident campaigner and formidable fundraiser.

She remains in stark contrast to her strident predecessor Hillary Clinton and her outspoken challenger Teresa Heinz Kerry - but that is precisely where her strength is seen to lie.

Softly, but assuredly, she has started to stray away from her pet subjects of education and reading, defending her husband on controversial issues such as his war against Iraq and stance on stem cell research.


Laura Bush wih George Bush
An only child, Mrs Bush was born Laura Welch in Midland, Texas in 1946 and raised in a staunchly Democrat family. Technically she crossed paths with her future husband early in life when the two of them attended the same junior high school - although they did not know each other.

A confirmed bookworm, she loved reading and decided very quickly that she wanted to be a school teacher.

Her late adolescent years were marred by a tragedy which is thought to have weighed heavily on her during her adult life.

Aged 17, Mrs Bush accidentally drove through a stop sign and hit a car driven by a high school friend, Michael Douglas, also 17. He was killed.

According to at least one account, for over a decade following the accident she kept herself to herself. She gained a degree in education in 1968, and by the age of 30 had settled into a quiet life as a school librarian without any steady companion in the picture.

But friends cajoled her into meeting a bachelor her own age called George W - and a whirlwind romance ensued.

Just three months later the pair were married.

They settled down in Mrs Bush's childhood hometown of Midland. She left her career and in 1981 they became the parents of twin girls, Jenna and Barbara Bush, named after their paternal and maternal grandparents.

The pregnancy was not easy; doctors informed the couple that at least one of the twins might be lost. Some observers have seen this as one of the reasons Mrs Bush has been so protective of the girls, who have only recently entered the media fray.

Mrs Bush is also credited with helped her husband to give up drinking on his 40th birthday. She allegedly issued him with an ultimatum: "It's me or the bottle."

Public speaking

Bush couple and their twin daughters

When Laura Bush agreed to marry George, she allegedly made him promise that she would never have to speak in public on his behalf.

That promise has long been broken. Indeed, as the US bombed Afghanistan, Mrs Bush became the first presidential spouse to deliver the president's weekly radio address, highlighting the oppression of women by al-Qaeda and the Taleban.

And while she would never differ with her husband in public, the couple have let it be known that when Laura thinks her husband's speeches have been off the mark, she makes it clear.

When Mr Bush said he wanted al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" for the 11 September attacks, Laura let her husband know she thought he had made himself look more like a hot-headed cowboy than a level-headed statesman.

"Bushie, you gonna git 'im?" she whispered in his ear.

The above article is from NYT and BBC.

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