A 'desperate housewife' lifts the lid on life in the Bush family

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The Independent US

A decorous former librarian and saviour of a once wayward and boozy spouse.

That has been the Laura Bush the world knows. On Saturday, however, a new Laura Bush emerged: racy and mocking ­ a "desperate housewife" of the television series variety, looking for a good time that dull, early-to-bed George could never provide.

"I said to him the other day, 'George, if you really want to end tyranny in this world, you're going to have to stay up later'," the first lady told an annual press dinner to gales of laughter.

"Nine o'clock and Mr Excitement here is in bed, and I am watching Desperate Housewives ... Ladies and gentlemen, I am a desperate housewife."

So dire had the situation become, she quipped, that one night she slipped out of the White House to join vice-President Dick Cheney's wife, Lynne, and Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, for a girls' night out at Chippendales ­ a male strip bar. "I won't tell you what happened," she said, "But Lynne's secret service code name is now 'Dollar Bill'."

The humour predictably went down a treat at the annual White House correspondent's dinner ­ one of those classic Washington events where leaders of the free world crack self-deprecating jokes, and the audience, for one evening at least their equal, bask in the reflected glory from the presence of the mighty.

Needless to say, however, the first lady's debut as a stand-up comic was anything but spontaneous. Rather, it was an artful way of underscoring the higher profile she has been assigned by the White House since Mr Bush was re-elected last November.

During the first term, the familiar Mrs Bush was invariably on view, the quintessential politician's wife, gazing mute and adoring as Mr Bush delivered the same speech for the umpteenth time. On the rare occasions she did go public, her remarks were almost always confined to homemaking and cookie-baking.

Today it is a different story. With an approval rating in the region of 80 per cent, double that of her husband, Mrs Bush is a political asset of much value. She has overhauled her private office and, increasingly, she travels the country solo, promoting her views on education and heading a $150m programme to help young people in deprived inner cities.

On Saturday, her carefully plotted cue arrived as Mr Bush embarked on a tired joke about steel cattle grids. The first lady could take no more. "Not that old joke again ­ not again," she interjected. "I've been attending these dinners for years and just quietly sitting there. Well, I've got a few things I want to say for a change." And she did, to the carefully contrived "embarrassment" of the President.

"George always says he's delighted to come to these press dinners. Baloney ­ he's usually in bed by now," Mrs Bush declared, in reference to Mr Bush's habit of leaving evening functions that strayed a minute over their allotted time.

She also took aim at the cultivated image of Mr Bush the gnarled rancher, saying he knew little about the business when they bought their ranch, "Prairie Chapel" at Crawford, Texas. "I'm proud of George, he's learnt a lot about ranching since that first year, when he tried to milk a horse. What's worse, it was a male horse."

Mrs Bush also turned the President's well-known penchant for chopping down vegetation into a metaphor for his administration's brusque political style.

"George's answer to any problem at the ranch is to cut it down with a chainsaw. Which I think is why he and Cheney and [the Defence Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld get along so well."

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