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Americans Tend to Favor a Traditional First Lady - 2004-10-07

President Bush often begins his campaign speeches by telling voters the best reason to re-elect him is to give his wife, Laura Bush, another four years as first lady. His Democratic Party challenger, John Kerry, is equally effusive about his wife and tells supporters that Teresa Heinz Kerry would make a great first lady. VOA’s Serena Parker reports on Americans’ views of the two women.

The role of the American first lady is a difficult one. According to Karlyn Bowman, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington, not only must she live under the constant glare of the media, but she must deal with the mixed feelings Americans have about her role.

“I think there’s a great deal of ambivalence of what a first lady should be,” she says. “On the one hand, we want her to be a strong role model for women. We want her to be able to be a gracious hostess with the president. We want her to be able to be her own person. What the public doesn’t appear to want is a first lady who is very, very active in policy.”

Karlyn Bowman notes the current first lady, Laura Bush, has avoided controversy during her husband’s term in office. The former librarian and mother of two has chosen to promote child literacy a bipartisan, non-political cause. Her demure public demeanor has translated into positive ratings. Seventy percent of Americans have a solidly favorable opinion of Laura Bush.

Political analyst Karlyn Bowman says the White House is well aware of this and frequently sends Mrs. Bush out on the campaign trail, where she has raised $10 million for her husband’s reelection. In August, she addressed the Republican National Convention in New York City:

“I want to try to answer the question that I think a lot of people would like to ask me if we sat down for a cup of coffee or if we ran into each other at the store. You know him [George Bush] better than anyone else. You’ve seen things that no one else has seen. Why do you think we should re-elect your husband as president?”

Mrs. Bush devoted the rest of her speech to highlighting her husband’s accomplishments during his four years in office. Chief among them -- the President’s efforts to combat terrorism at home and abroad.

Robin Gerber, author of the book Leadership: The Eleanor Roosevelt Way, says Laura Bush fits the traditional role of American first ladies. If John Kerry wins the November election, Ms. Gerber thinks his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, might be a less conventional first lady.

“She has a number of causes that she’s devoted to,” she says. “Clearly she’s not afraid of controversy or speaking her mind, so I think we probably would see a more activist first lady in her.”

During Mrs. Heinz Kerry’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, she highlighted causes such as women’s rights and the environment. She spoke of her experience as an immigrant to the United States and what it was like to grow up in Mozambique and attend university under South African apartheid: “I learned something then and I believe it still. There is a value in taking a stand whether or not anybody may be noticing it and whether or not it is a risky thing to do.”

Only at the very end of her hour-long speech did Mrs. Heinz Kerry talk about her husband and why people should vote for him.

Chris Suellentrop, Deputy Washington Bureau Chief for the online magazine Slate, says that while Democrats loved Mrs. Heinz Kerry’s speech, many Republicans and Independents were put off by it. Public opinion polls show that many Americans still haven’t warmed up to the idea of Mrs. Heinz Kerry as First Lady. For example, a Los Angeles Times newspaper survey asked who better fit the traditional role of first lady. Fifty-six percent chose Laura Bush; 26% chose Teresa Heinz Kerry. Chris Suellentrop says there may be several factors at play here.

“I think it’s indisputable that some Americans aren’t comfortable with the idea of Teresa Heinz Kerry as a first lady,” he says. “And the questionable thing is why they aren’t comfortable with her. Is it the things she says or is it the perception that she’s this rich, haughty heiress? Or is it also partly the thing that isn’t being said -- the fact that in part, at least for some people, that she speaks with a foreign accent? People expect a mother figure out of the first lady and they’re not getting it from Teresa Heinz Kerry. Fair or not.”

But Chris Suellentrop is quick to point out that if John Kerry loses this election, it won’t be because of Teresa Heinz Kerry. And if George Bush is re-elected, it won’t be because of Laura Bush. Although voters pay attention to the candidates’ wives, in the end they are voting for the candidate -- and not the person he married.