Beware the Bushwomen: Cast as Moderate and Benign, the White House's Women Are Anything But

Article excerpt

You can tell when the Bush Administration is rattled. George W. chats up Tim Russert on NBC and Bush's women sit down for a talk with Elizabeth Bumiller of the New York Times.

In January Condoleezza Rice granted an interview to the Times. In the middle of a national security meltdown, when the Bush Administration--and Rice herself--stood accused of manipulating intelligence to take the country to war on a false pretext, Bumiller's softball profile, which ran on the newspaper's front page, emphasized not the National Security Adviser's complicity in the scandal but her cozy personal relationship with the President. Among other nonrevelations, readers learned from Secretary of State Colin Powell that Rice's closeness to George W. is "not unusual but at the same time, a little unusual."

A month later, it was Laura Bush's turn. While much of her husband's State of the Union address was written to please the radical right, the First Lady used the opportunity to speak to social moderates. Karl Rove, her husband's Machiavellian political adviser, is not so powerful, the First Lady chuckled. Regarding a constitutional amendment on heterosexist marriage, Laura Bush told Bumiller that the President "just thinks it's something that states and people want to be able to debate." That sounds a whole lot softer than the President's public "defend traditional marriage" pledge. (The quote did not appear in the published article, but did show up on the Times website.) In another bone-toss to moderates, Laura Bush announced an $18 million increase in the 2005 budget for the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Bushwomen are the Administration's way of sending two contradictory messages at once. Even as her husband courts social conservatives, Laura Bush lulls moderate voters into believing that the White House is not really in the clutches of the extreme right. Likewise, when the President declared the University of Michigan law school's affirmative action policy unconstitutional, Rice came out with a different line: "I believe that while race-neutral means are preferable it is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body." The President's statement had been crafted to please anti-affirmative action absolutists, but the White House brief in the Michigan case did not actually rule out every use of race in college admissions. Rice was the public face of that far more nuanced position. The two didn't disagree; they just spun two different audiences simultaneously.

As election 2004 approaches, the Bushwomen are on the march. The President's re-election requires appealing to as many constituencies as possible. While, as Richard Goldstein has written, the candidate "butches up" for the fight, the Bushwomen--the First Lady, as well as the women appointed to the inner circle of the President's Cabinet and sub-Cabinet--provide an alternative facade. They are cast as harmless, moderate, irrelevant or benign, and their well-spun image taps into familiar stereotypes about women and people of color, while their political and corporate records remain conveniently out of sight--thanks to a mostly oblivious media.

On the campaign trail, the Bushwomen's mission is to help the GOP solve its female problem. For twenty years, a smaller percentage of women than men have cast their votes for Republicans for President. Of course, highly placed females don't necessarily translate into votes, but it's clear the Republican Party thinks the Bushwomen can help. Just seven months into the Bush presidency, a Republican pollster took a poll and winced. "This is not happy data," he told the press. The President's approval rating stood at a historic low for a leader so early in his first term (51 percent), and the same poll revealed a "precipitous drop" in Republican support among married women with children, the subset of women with which Republican candidates traditionally do best. …