Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Laura's choice

Q: Laura Bush drew kudos and controversy for largely staying out of the limelight as first lady. She's even reserved in her new memoir. Did Bush miss a chance to promote her causes more aggressively? Do such people have any responsibility to the public?

Americans are utterly schizo when it comes to their reactions to women in the public eye.

We love Laura Bush for her reserved demeanor while harassing Elena Kagan endlessly on matters that are purely personal and should remain so. We like that demure little-lady stuff for the First Lady while thinking that a potential Supreme Court justice who is a single lady must be hiding something terrible because she won't talk about her personal life.

Our confused reaction to the image of women in public life is not just about the relative balance of power in different positions -- arguably, a First Lady is a very powerful public figure; witness the egregious attacks on Hillary Clinton for wielding that power in public. In fact, Hillary's unabashed use of her powerful role to advance political causes may well have forced the subsequent first ladies --- not only Laura Bush but even Michelle Obama --- to tone it down, button it up, return the role to the silent partner behind the powerful man.

But even Hillary became inscrutable on the topic of what she really did to Bill when she learned about Monica.

Public figures do not owe the public the spectacle of every salacious and boring detail of their personal lives. We have the Palin family for those who like oversharing. But the whole idea that all citizens are entitled to know the intimate details of sleeping arrangements and pillow talk and private thoughts makes the idea of public service increasingly distasteful for many people who value their privacy.

For women, in particular, the vicious nature of the public scrutiny reveals large reservoirs of misogynist behaviors among people whose primary business seems to be character assassination. Laura Bush was smart to play down her power because her predecessor stirred up so much hatred by overtly enjoying her power. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi incurs appalling vilification in ways that few male politicians have had to endure in retaliation for their political victories.

Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court has brought out the beasts who enjoy sticking their noses into places that have nothing to do with interpreting the Constitution and laws of the land. Being a single lady, myself, though in a much less public place, I do know something about the beasts. In the olden days, we "unclaimed treasures" would have been written off as hapless spinsters, more objects of pity than scorn.

Today, however, a woman who is single late in her professional life has to be ready to do backflips to explain her situation, when, in fact, the plain explanation might be that she's just been working too darn hard for too long to have a romance. Darn! I knew there was something I forgot to do ... get married!

The rumors around Kagan's sexual orientation have led to the unfortunate public surfacing of the old canards that smart women are boy-repellants. Do we really have to put up with Eliot Spitzer announcing that he knew her but did not date her? Ugh. Besides, most of us grown-ups know plenty of people of both genders who have been married with children AND had "special friends" on the side.

Bottom line: Like so many other parts of the private life/public spectacle debate, it's not our business if it's not really "the people's" business -- the business of governing.

Laura Bush is a fascinating woman who probably has a much richer and more interesting story to tell, but who has made a choice to let us keep guessing. Good for her. Sometimes we need a steel magnolia like that to put some spine into everyone's claim on a private life.

By Patricia McGuire  |  May 17, 2010; 12:12 PM ET  | Category:  Defining success Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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"Still, me thinks that the dumbest President of all time is probably married to the dumbest First Lady of all time."

Ah, those classy liberals. Intellectual too!

Posted by: bobmoses | May 19, 2010 1:04 PM
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I thought the question was about Laura Bush not Elena Kagan.

Posted by: maslager | May 19, 2010 12:50 PM
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If she had any real substance she would have left that idiot husband of hers years ago.

Posted by: adrienne_najjar | May 19, 2010 9:15 AM
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First Ladies don't overshadow their husbands.

And as the wife of the dumbest President of all time, that certainly would have been easy to do.

Still, me thinks that the dumbest President of all time is probably married to the dumbest First Lady of all time.

It was a match made in heaven, as they say.

Posted by: jjedif | May 19, 2010 8:29 AM
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I admire Laura Bush for showing us that strong women can still have their dignity and 'softness'. She didn't try to overshadow her husband, 'mother' him when times were tough on him.
More than any other recent First Lady, Laura Bush is a class act. Style and substance, wisdom with humility. A real woman role model.

Posted by: momof20yo | May 19, 2010 7:38 AM
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