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First Lady Reflects on Her New Job, Her New Country

Meeting: Laura Bush tells a news gathering that she likes the changes she sees in America since Sept. 11.

November 09, 2001|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — First Lady Laura Bush, sharing her experiences since Sept. 11 and the folk wisdom that has guided her along the way, gave the distinct impression Thursday that her position is growing on her.

In an unusually open and free-flowing exchange, Bush said one of her best friends, who once empathized with her for being thrust into a spotlight she never coveted, had "felt an actual pang of jealousy" in the aftermath of the attacks.

"She realized, and reminded me, that I had a great opportunity to reach out to a large audience and help people, while she, in comparison, didn't know what she could do to help," the first lady told reporters at the National Press Club.

Perhaps Bush's appreciation of her job has grown because the country she serves now seems a lot more appealing to her.

"We have been living in an age of self-absorption and self-indulgence," she said. "But the amazing thing is that in one day it all stopped."

Indeed, the first lady made it very clear that she believes that America is a different--and better--country than it was two months ago. These changes have come, she said, "in ways that the terrorists could not have imagined or intended."

"I think the attacks have caused all of us to reassess our priorities and our values," Bush said. "Rather than fearing death, we're embracing life, life that is now seen as more precious, more meaningful than it seemed before that tragic fall day."

Americans have stopped criticizing each other and their communities and started trying to make them better, she said.

"We began to think not about what is wrong but what is right with our towns and our states and this country."

White House Now 'Sort of Quiet'

In the question-and-answer session, the first lady offered insights into how her day-to-day life has changed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Among other things, public tours of the White House have been stopped.

"It's lonely and sort of quiet in there," Bush said, adding that she hopes the tours resume soon.

She said these difficult times have also changed her husband in subtle ways.

"Certainly he's more serious now," Bush said. "We still try to say things to each other to make each other laugh and to be funny. I think laughter a lot of times defuses nervousness or feelings of anxiety."

For her part, the first lady appeared completely at ease addressing hundreds of journalists, even cracking some spontaneous jokes.

She was asked what she does to relieve stress, since her husband likes to exercise.

"I'm also working out. Can y'all tell?" she teased, making a muscle and smiling broadly.

She volunteered that reading also has helped her handle the crisis.

"I read for inspiration but also for diversion when I'm anxious," she said.

Delving Into Novels, Poetry

The first book she read to take her mind off the terrorist attacks was Sue Grafton's mystery "P is for Peril."

And in reading a book by Billy Collins, the nation's new poet laureate, she was struck by a poem called "Passengers," about people aboard an airplane.

"It's a really lovely poem that's hard to read right now," she said.

Bush said her twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, came from college for a visit a few weekends after the attacks.

"We couldn't wait to put our arms around them," the first lady said.

She said she is looking forward to Thanksgiving, when the family will gather.

"This year I will not be cooking the turkey," Bush said. "I haven't had to cook for a few years and it's been a great relief for my family."

Asked whether she would write a book about her White House experiences, Bush said she's a big reader but not much of a writer.

But she said she thinks it would be fun to write a black-and-white baby book--the kind that "babies chew on"--about Barney, one of the family's dogs.

The first lady, who maintained her composure and humor despite occasional fits of coughing, recalled that upon agreeing to marry George W. Bush, she insisted that she never be required to give a speech.

"You won't have to, don't worry," she recalled him promising. But three months after they were married, she gave a political speech in his place.

That was not the only thing in their marriage that worked out differently than her husband expected, she said.

"I did promise him I'd run with him every day," she said. "I never, ever ran with him. Not once."

Although Bush seems to be enjoying her public role more, she made it clear that she in no way considers it a co-presidency.

"He was the one elected," she said. "I would have never run."

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