Hillary Clinton likes to say that moms are always pointing to her and telling their daughters: "See, you can do anything you want." She's right to take pride in those moments. She provides a powerful role model for all women and girls, whether they like her or not. And so does Laura Bush, whether you like her husband or not.
In a lame duck administration, led by a highly unpopular president, the first lady has emerged as a voice of passionate pragmatism on issues ranging from democracy in Burma to HIV/AIDS in Africa. She knows her limits. She doesn't make policy or cast vetoes. Her real role is using her own version of the bully pulpit — call it the "pink pulpit" — to focus attention on issues she cares deeply about.
"My influence," she told USA Today in a recent interview, "is really in being able to shine a spotlight on human rights situations that I want the American people to look at, and I want the people in those countries to know that the American people are with them."
It's easy to dismiss her efforts as merely cosmetic or symbolic, but the pink pulpit really matters. As Nancy Soderberg, a senior diplomat during the Clinton administration, told The Washington Post: "When she says something on an issue, it has an impact. There's no question when a first lady takes on an issue, it's at the top of everybody's inbox."
If the old line is right — a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged — a feminist is a woman who enters public life and encounters political reality. She quickly discovers that if she does not push issues that matter to females, the guys will quickly forget them. And even if she doesn't call her herself a feminist, Laura Bush has clearly learned that lesson.
As a former librarian, Laura concentrated her early efforts in Washington on literacy and education, but soon she was refocusing her "spotlight" on gender. The first radio address she gave for her husband, and one of her first trips abroad, publicized the girls who flooded Afghanistan's re-opened schools after the fall of the Taliban.
Nothing contributes more to a country's development than keeping girls in school. The more education they get, the later they marry, the fewer children they bear, the greater skills they acquire to support their families. And making a difference in women's lives has become the focus of Laura Bush's work.
During a tour of Africa last summer, she received a lot of flak for defending her husband's emphasis on abstinence as the best way to control HIV/AIDS, but she cast her reasoning in strongly feminist tones, telling NPR: "We need to get the message to girls everywhere, not just in Africa, that they have a choice, that they can be abstinent and make choices for themselves that keep themselves safe."
But she also used feminist language to defy conservatives who argue that making condoms widely available will only promote promiscuity. "Condoms are … a very, very important piece to protect your partner," she said in another NPR interview. Just picture her husband saying anything like that.
Laura's growing interest in Burma's democracy movement has clearly been fueled by feminist feelings. Five years ago her husband's cousin, Elsie Walker Kilbourne, introduced her to the struggles and writings of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who has been under house arrest since winning an election in 1990.
"She represents to me, really, the hopes of everyone in Burma," Laura told the Post. "I know what she wants, and she wants political reconciliation."
This week the first lady takes her pink pulpit on yet another mission for women, traveling throughout the Middle East to raise breast cancer awareness in a region where women are often not allowed to reveal their bodies in public, let alone talk about them.
And while Laura insists she will vote Republican next year, she has gone out of her way to promote the idea of a female in the Oval Office. "I do think the U.S. is certainly ready for a woman president," she firmly told an interviewer for the National Journal. Will voters accept a woman as commander in chief? "Sure, absolutely," she answered.
We agree. And Laura Bush, through her use of the pink pulpit, gets some credit for the willingness of voters to accept women as figures of power and influence. Moms everywhere can point to the last two first ladies and say to their daughters: "See? You can do anything you want."
Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.