You can tell when the Bush Administration is rattled. George W. chats up Tim Russert on NBC and Bush’s women sit down for a talk with Elizabeth Bumiller of the New York Times.

In January Condoleezza Rice granted an interview to the Times. In the middle of a national security meltdown, when the Bush Administration–and Rice herself–stood accused of manipulating intelligence to take the country to war on a false pretext, Bumiller’s softball profile, which ran on the newspaper’s front page, emphasized not the National Security Adviser’s complicity in the scandal but her cozy personal relationship with the President. Among other nonrevelations, readers learned from Secretary of State Colin Powell that Rice’s closeness to George W. is “not unusual but at the same time, a little unusual.”

A month later, it was Laura Bush’s turn. While much of her husband’s State of the Union address was written to please the radical right, the First Lady used the opportunity to speak to social moderates. Karl Rove, her husband’s Machiavellian political adviser, is not so powerful, the First Lady chuckled. Regarding a constitutional amendment on heterosexist marriage, Laura Bush told Bumiller that the President “just thinks it’s something that states and people want to be able to debate.” That sounds a whole lot softer than the President’s public “defend traditional marriage” pledge. (The quote did not appear in the published article, but did show up on the Times website.) In another bone-toss to moderates, Laura Bush announced an $18 million increase in the 2005 budget for the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Bushwomen are the Administration’s way of sending two contradictory messages at once. Even as her husband courts social conservatives, Laura Bush lulls moderate voters into believing that the White House is not really in the clutches of the extreme right. Likewise, when the President declared the University of Michigan law school’s affirmative action policy unconstitutional, Rice came out with a different line: “I believe that while race-neutral means are preferable it is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body.” The President’s statement had been crafted to please anti-affirmative action absolutists, but the White House brief in the Michigan case did not actually rule out every use of race in college admissions. Rice was the public face of that far more nuanced position. The two didn’t disagree; they just spun two different audiences simultaneously.

As election 2004 approaches, the Bushwomen are on the march. The President’s re-election requires appealing to as many constituencies as possible. While, as Richard Goldstein has written, the candidate “butches up” for the fight, the Bushwomen–the First Lady, as well as the women appointed to the inner circle of the President’s Cabinet and sub-Cabinet–provide an alternative facade. They are cast as harmless, moderate, irrelevant or benign, and their well-spun image taps into familiar stereotypes about women and people of color, while their political and corporate records remain conveniently out of sight–thanks to a mostly oblivious media.

On the campaign trail, the Bushwomen’s mission is to help the GOP solve its female problem. For twenty years, a smaller percentage of women than men have cast their votes for Republicans for President. Of course, highly placed females don’t necessarily translate into votes, but it’s clear the Republican Party thinks the Bushwomen can help. Just seven months into the Bush presidency, a Republican pollster took a poll and winced. “This is not happy data,” he told the press. The President’s approval rating stood at a historic low for a leader so early in his first term (51 percent), and the same poll revealed a “precipitous drop” in Republican support among married women with children, the subset of women with which Republican candidates traditionally do best. The Republican answer was to pump up the profiles of the highest-ranking women in the Bush Administration. In July 2001 the White House invited female magazine editors and publishers to meet with female officials. The RNC announced it would drive millions of dollars a year into a new campaign, “Winning Women,” that would feature profiles of people like former presidential counselor Karen Hughes, then-EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and Condoleezza Rice.

After September 11, 2001, the President said, “I really don’t think about politics right now,” but his political team was still at work. As the 2002 midterm elections approached, female swing voters danced like sugar-plum fairies in Karl Rove’s head. We know that because someone on the President’s staff lost a computer disk containing the senior adviser’s election advice. The disk showed up in Washington’s Lafayette Park, and Rove’s PowerPoint presentation made its way into the hands of journalists. President Bush, said Rove, needs to “grow” his outreach to Latinos, suburban women and Catholics. No one did more campaigning in 2002 than Hughes. (“The rumors of my retirement have been greatly exaggerated,” says Hughes, and she’s correct.) In 2002 the First Lady stumped for a candidate her husband couldn’t, pro-choice Republican Connie Morella. No one except Dick Cheney is more sought-after for campaign fundraisers than First Lady Laura (she raised more than $5 million for her husband’s re-election campaign between June 2003 and January 2004), and she arouses none of the negative publicity provoked by the Vice President’s ties to corporate contractors in Iraq.

Rove knows the numbers. Fifty-two percent of voters are female, with suburban women making up about 25-30 percent of the electorate. As pollster Anna Greenberg explains, women, especially white, married suburban women, are “the least solidly attached voters out there,” the biggest swingers. Everything else remaining as it is, in 2004 suburban women could win or lose the race. They are certainly the largest “unattached” bloc within the Republicans’ grasp.

In 2003, another GOP memo turned up. Mounting job losses and dying soldiers in Iraq had sent Bush’s numbers tumbling from the dizzy heights of his post-9/11 popularity down below their pre-9/11 low mark. In California the GOP was hoping to benefit from the effort to recall Democratic Governor Gray Davis. The memo, by California GOP organizer Julie Leitzell, declared that the recall election presented a unique opportunity to target disaffected voters, especially women, before the 2004 presidential race. “It’s important that we use this opportunity (and hot news hook) to present an image of diverse Republican women (moms, educators, business owners, students, working women,)” wrote Leitzell. “We want to make sure the media are steered toward the ‘common-sense women against Davis’ angle…. We are working on getting a big-name female draw for each local event.”

This year is another Bushwomen moment. As the economy sputters and living-wage jobs die out, Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy are a liability at the polls. The President himself is no Clinton when it comes to empathy. His “I feel your pain” comes across as a smirk. Besides, the public knows something now about the Big Oil bosses and contract-connected CEOs who pepper his Administration. On social issues the Democrats will go to town with the image of Bush, backed by a celebrating mob of white-haired, white-skinned male congressmen and senators, signing the twenty-first century’s first law imposing criminal penalties on doctors who help women get abortions.

Thanks to news accounts that emphasize personality over politics, the female members of Bush’s inner circle work well as identity-politics puppets; a kind of PC protection device, they provide superficial cover while the Administration pursues policies that take a disproportionate toll on the lives of women and people of color. The Bushwomen do for Bush’s image what “pro-life” language did for the Republican Party’s rhetoric.

In the hot seat after the resignation of Trent Lott over comments Lott made on Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday, Bush was forced to defend his record on racism. Asked by the press about his own civil rights record and his consistent refusal to meet with NAACP leaders, Bush gestured to his Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, as if that itself were a sufficient substitute for policy. “Let’s see,” said Bush. “There I was, sitting around the leader with–the table with foreign leaders, looking at Colin Powell and Condi Rice.”

When it came to invading Afghanistan and then Iraq, the White House deployed its female faces to cast a glowing light on war. In mid-November 2001, word was filtering out of Afghanistan that US forces had dropped on alleged Taliban sites two 15,000-pound bombs known as “Daisy Cutters,” which are so large they can be delivered only by dropping them out of a cargo plane. They kill every living thing within a radius of 300-900 feet. The First Lady, who’d come to the comfort of bereaved American families after 9/11, went on the radio to reassure the public that the war was not about revenge but about liberation. Running down the record of Taliban brutality toward women–long ignored by the US government–the United States wasn’t alone, she said: “Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror, not only because our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan, we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us.”

On October 7, 2002, the President warned the American people about “the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud,” repeating what Condoleezza Rice and Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke had said a month earlier. Congress voted to grant Bush the power to invade Iraq on the 11th. Although she served for ten years on the board of directors of Chevron and used her Sovietology skills to secure oil contracts for that company throughout the Caspian and the former Soviet republics, Rice isn’t perceived as an oilman of Dick Cheney’s ilk. She is, but thanks to the stereotypes of our age, to most people she doesn’t look it. Lest the public begin to perceive her too as part of the war machine oiligopoly, Rice constantly redirects attention to her personal “narrative” about growing up in segregated Alabama. Indeed, although African-Americans disproportionately opposed the US first-strike invasion of Iraq, and thanks to what amounts to a poverty draft are overrepresented among the occupation’s US dead, Rice claims that the whole Iraqi operation is really about civil rights.

In August 2003 Rice addressed the National Association of Black Journalists: “Like many of you, I grew up around the home-grown terrorism of the 1960s. The bombing of the church in Birmingham in 1963 is one that will forever be in my memory because one of the girls who died was a friend of mine…. [Forty years later] we should not let our voice waver in speaking out on the side of people who are seeking freedom.” Denying people the right to freedom, she said, “was wrong in 1963 in Birmingham, and it is wrong in 2003 in Baghdad.”

Looking ahead, the worse things get for Bush, the more the Bushwomen will be busy. Who better to reassure an anxious nation than these women, whom most Americans know almost nothing about–thanks to the shallow coverage provided by a stereotype-sodden media? In public relations terms, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, whose personal story involves growing up on a family peach farm, is perfectly suited to the task of reassuring consumers that US food is safe to trade and eat, mad-cow disease and E. coli outbreaks notwithstanding. This past Christmas Day, Veneman told the nation she would be serving beef to her family. Not mentioned were her years of work on behalf of the nation’s biggest industrial food corporations.

As the President’s promises on job creation fall flat, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao fronts the Administration line that the economy is full of opportunity. Who better for that job than a self-described Chinese immigrant who is perceived to have risen to high office by dint of family determination, smarts and hard work alone? (Chao’s well-connected family, her elite Mount Holyoke education and her marriage to one of the Republican Party’s leading men, Mitch McConnell, rarely come up.)

As US fatalities crossed the 500 mark this January, Chao turned up in Baghdad with a message for Iraqi women. “In a democracy the most important factor is energy,” she said. For their part, the Iraqi women requested that the United States institute quotas for women in the US-appointed Governing Council. Just weeks before Chao’s visit, conservative clerics on that council had led a vote to scrap Iraq’s 1959 family laws and place such issues under Muslim religious jurisdiction. Women, who make up a majority of the Iraqi population, received only three seats on the twenty-five-member council; no women participated in the Constitution-writing committee. Chao rejected any form of quotas–women should rise by their own efforts, she said. At the very same time, MADRE was reporting that Yanar Mohammed, founder of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, was receiving death threats for her efforts to stand up for women’s equality.

Iraq’s women “are fighting for the soul of your country,” Chao told the women she met there. Iraqi women hardly needed telling that they face a fight; their pressure ultimately helped defeat the Governing Council’s family law resolution. The message they took from their meeting with Chao is that they can’t expect much US help. Chao appears to have uttered not one word about Yanar Mohammed’s plight. She did, however, leave the women of Iraq with a present: a framed photograph of her and other senior women officials at the US Labor Department.