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First Lady's toughest role

Ron Hutcheson (Knight Ridder/Tribune)/WASHINGTON -- She arranges her books in her home like the former librarian she is, but first lady Laura Bush has a way of breaking the bookworm stereotype.

She's been known to jump into a creek fully clothed. She loves the music of Van Morrison. And her gentle nature masks a surprising toughness.

On Thursday, she'll start a two-day swing through Southern California in her first foray as first lady. As part of her effort to promote education, Laura Bush, 54, will tout teacher recruitment programs in Los Angeles and San Diego, and tour an elementary school in San Fernando with Mexican President Vicente Fox.

She came to politics reluctantly, resisting nearly every step of her husband's climb to the top, but now that she has been thrust into the most demanding role any political spouse can face, she's thrown herself into it with characteristic determination.

"She hasn't been grooming herself for this position," said Adair Margo, a gallery owner in El Paso and a friend. "She grows where she's planted."

Before they married, George W. Bush promised his fiancee she would never have to give a campaign speech. Three months later, she delivered her first speech on the courthouse steps in tiny Muleshoe, Texas.

Her roots are in Midland, Texas, where her future husband also spent his early childhood. Her father was a home builder. Her mother helped keep the company's books. She was an only child.

Although both Bushes recall their West Texas childhood as idyllic, they both suffered personal tragedies that influenced their outlook on life.

For George W. Bush, it was the death of his younger sister from leukemia when he was 7. For Laura Bush, it was a freak automobile accident when she was a teen-ager.

Two days after her 17th birthday in 1963, she ran a stop sign and plowed into another car. The driver of the second vehicle, also 17, was killed. He was her boyfriend. Police said neither driver had been drinking.

Like everyone else in Midland, Laura Welch knew about the Bush family, but she didn't have much interest in meeting the hard-living eldest son when friends tried to bring them together as adults.

For starters, she had little interest in politics. Besides, she was a Democrat. But Joe and Jan O'Neill, the Midland couple who arranged a meeting at a backyard barbecue in 1977, had a feeling that the reserved school librarian and the outgoing oilman would hit it off.

Three months later, they married, both age 31.

"She's never needed the limelight. She's very happy to let George do that," Jan O'Neill said. "They're both real supportive of each other. They each kind of do their own thing, and they have enough in common that it works."

Although Laura Bush gladly accepts the role of dutiful political wife in public, she has been a powerful influence on her husband. Her gentle prodding helped convince him to quit drinking and led him to the Methodist Church.

"She's always had that kind of iron hand. It was always very softly spoken," O'Neill said. "I don't think people are really aware of it because she's so quiet about it."

At times, Laura Bush offers political advice. During the presidential campaign, for example, it was she who talked her husband into going on Oprah Winfrey's TV show, where he seemed to charm his host -- and reached millions of potential voters.

The day before George W. Bush took the oath of office, his wife rankled anti-abortion activists influential in the Republican Party by presenting her own views on the topic. Although she described herself as "pro-life," under persistent questioning from NBC's Katie Couric, she said she did not think the Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion should be overturned.

At a reception at the Texas governor's mansion late last year, Laura Bush laughed when asked if she could accurately be described as "sweet."

"Right ... sweet," her husband interjected, rolling his eyes as if to suggest that any sweetness is perhaps accompanied by a certain tartness.

But friends say Laura Bush is anything but power hungry. Margo, the El Paso gallery owner, recalled a campaign swing through Michigan when Bush took time out to look for a predicted meteor shower despite her packed schedule.

"She insisted on lying in someone's back yard and looking at meteors. We were all freezing," Margo said.

A few years earlier, Margo joined Laura Bush and a couple of other friends for a hike in the hills west of Austin. The first lady of Texas startled her companions and her security agent by jumping into a creek.

"We were all kind of sweaty. She just plunged in with all her clothes on. It was just one of those glorious carefree moments," Margo said. "She's so absolutely natural."

Of course, it's hard to be natural when your hair, your makeup, your clothes, virtually your every move, can be fodder for media commentary. Fashion mavens panned her plaid purple suit, but awarded a thumbs-up to the red evening gown she wore to inaugural balls.

"I can just see her laughing about that," Margo said. "She's not preoccupied with what people think about her. She's someone who appreciates the things that really matter. Friends and relationships and rootedness are the things that are important to her."

For more information: www.whitehouse.gov

Her biography as first lady of Texas: www.governor.state.tx.us

(c) 2001 Knight Ridder Newspapers

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