Changing rooms: Hillary, Laura and a West Wing wallpaper war

According to a new book published today, Mrs Bush was unimpressed by Mrs Clinton's refurbishment of the White House, calling it 'garish'. So is there blood on the carpet - and does it match the curtains? Rupert Cornwell reports
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The Independent US

These days, barely one American in three looks kindly on George W. His wife, on the other hand, is the most popular First Lady in recent history - America's most admired woman, of whom even the most partisan Democrat is pressed to find an unkind word. George Bush may have trouble making the tiniest change in his staff, to revive his political fortunes. No such excess of blind loyalty is in evidence in the East Wing.

For the FLOTUS - to use the secret service acronym based on her official title - the second Bush term has brought a virtually complete staff makeover. She has a new chief of staff, another press secretary, and a new social secretary. Laura sacked Walter Schieb, the White House chef of 11 years standing, for failing to measure up to her "stylistic requirements". She is getting through pastry chefs faster than you can say piecrust. And now she's putting the stiletto into Hillary Clinton.

All in all, it's a remarkable display from a woman who hitherto has cultivated a reputation for kindliness and gentleness, as a rare shrinking rose from Texas. And now come two books to further burnish the emerging legend of Laura. There is Laura's List: the First Lady's List of 57 Great Books for Families and Children, building on her efforts to promote learning and readings skills.

Meanwhile on offer in bookshops across the country from today will be Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady, written by the former journalist Ronald Kessler, and said to be the first work about its subject written with the co-operation of the White House. Quasi-hagiography, rather than embarrassing new facts, should therefore be expected. None the less, in their different ways, both throw light on the woman closer than anyone to this most controversial and divisive of Presidents.

Presidential wives have always come in several varieties. Some, such as Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman, were utterly self-effacing. Others have carved out policy fields in their own right, most notably Eleanor Roosevelt, who created the role of the modern, activist First Lady. Rosalynn Carter, dubbed the "Steel Magnolia" by the White House press corps, used to sit in on some of husband Jimmy's cabinet meetings. Most recently of course there has been Hillary Clinton.

"Two for the price of one," Bill Clinton proclaimed on the campaign trail in 1992, positively advertising the role his wife would play. In office, he immediately entrusted her with devising his promised plan to reform US health care. But despite that failure she remained closely involved with policy - so much so that, uniquely, she is a former FLOTUS who has serious designs on becoming a POTUS.

Nancy Reagan, who arguably had more influence than any First Lady, represents another kind. Even Ronnie's schedule was at the mercy of Nancy's astrologer (referred to as "My Friend"), who determined whether the stars were propitiously aligned for a given appointment, event or foreign journey. No First Lady was more protective of her spouse, and none intervened as decisively in personnel matters. In 1987 Ms Reagan was responsible for the sacking of Donald Regan, the White House chief of staff, and had her say on almost every senior staff appointment.

Barbara Bush was happy to be seen as America's grandmother, her matronly figure resplendent in bright-blue twin sets and three-strand pearl necklaces. But the benign smile and plume of snowy white hair masked a formidable operator, with a very sharp tongue. For Barbara, one of life's guiding principles was, don't get mad, get even.

If Kessler's book is anything to go by, Laura is not immune to that trait. After being shown around her future home in December 2000 by Hillary Clinton, she is said to have been appalled by the "garish" decorations - by then, moreover, starting to look a little frayed - that were favoured by her predecessor. She complained that the Lincoln Bedroom in the East Wing looked "worn out" (not surprisingly, given how the room was in near constant use, for Clinton friends and family as well as big Clinton political donors).

Laura apparently also quickly signalled her disapproval of the Clinton version of the Oval Office, with its red striped sofas and "pop arty" royal blue rug. These were quickly banished, replaced by the restrained ivory, beige and terracotta carpet that had graced the office during the Reagan era. Such direct criticism might seem a little odd, given the ostentatious male bonding of Bill Clinton with both her husband and her father-in-law. Hillary, though, is another matter, having publicly described George W Bush as "one of the worst" Presidents in US history. Such slights cannot be left unanswered.

And the eternal serenity that Laura projects may be more imagined than real. After leaving the White House, Cathy Fenton, Laura Bush's first social secretary, described the atmosphere in the East Wing as "volatile". Nonetheless, Laura's public persona basically remains that of the Texas librarian she once was: straightforward, demure, radiating good sense. To the male of the species she is as reassuring as Hillary was threatening.

Look more closely though and another Laura is visible - more self-confident and assertive, the Laura who in the mid-1980s is said to have delivered the legendary "Jack Daniels or me" ultimatum that got the carousing George W off the bottle. This Laura was already evident in the 2004 campaign, as she ventured into important election battlegrounds like New Jersey. A year ago, her husband's last election safely won, the mousy image vanished for good at the 2005 White House Correspondents' dinner, where she made public fun of her husband's penchant for being in bed by 9.30 pm, describing herself as a Presidential version of a Desperate Housewife.

The jokes in the speech, of course, were anything but spontaneous. Even Laura Bush does not escape the rules of this most tightly scripted of administrations, and she shares its disdain of the media. But the delivery was great; plainly she was enjoying herself. Most important, all the spin-doctoring in the world cannot obscure two truths common to every First Lady.

They are without exception fiercely protective of their husbands. And they are better placed than anyone to give their mates the unvarnished private advice that even the closest adviser can shy from providing. In an interview with CNN's Larry King on 24 March, Laura dropped her clearest hints yet about this side of her job. She did talk about personnel with the President, she said - after all, "I know everyone as well as he does who works here. I mean, I've worked with them also. And so ... certainly, I would give him that kind of advice". Within four days George W was announcing the appointment of a new chief of staff, and other changes may be in the offing.

During the 33 months that remain of this Presidency, we should expect to see and hear ever more of Laura. As First Lady, Hillary was as polarising a figure as she is as a potential candidate for 2008, while Nancy Reagan's reputation only soared after she left the White House, and nursed her husband as Alzheimer's disease took its toll.

But the best thing George W Bush has going for him is his First Lady. Her approval rating - 82 per cent in one recent poll - is more than double his own. Presidential elections are not for First Ladies, it is said. But two years ago, Americans' ease with her, in contrast to their suspicion of the outspoken, foreign-born and colossally wealthy Teresa Heinz Kerry, undoubtedly helped Bush prevail in a very close vote. At this autumn's mid-terms, with control of Congress on the line, she will be campaigning vigorously for Republican candidates, some of whom would regard her husband as electoral baggage.

And who knows what else might happen? The humorist Christopher Buckley once wrote a satirical novel called No Way to Treat a Lady, the tale of a First Lady who is unjustly accused and tried for assassinating her husband. "The fact that the pastry chef is leaving" he remarked of the recent East Wing upheavals, "will send an important signal not only to the Congress but to al-Qa'ida and indeed the entire world community that Mr Bush means business." To which some might reply, if only.