First lady Laura Bush comforts Americans upset by last week's terrorist attacks and the prospect of war

Wednesday, September 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ First lady Laura Bush has made it her job to help Americans gain peace of mind amid terror, death and talk of war.

In the week since the most devastating terrorist attack of modern times, Mrs. Bush has comforted blood donors, grief-stricken families and fresh-faced White House staffers away from home for the first time. Hers was the hand that steadied President Bush as he visited Pentagon victims at a local burn unit.

But her attention goes mainly to helping America's children. She wrote an open letter for school children the day after the attacks. On Tuesday morning, she traveled to Chicago to appear on Oprah Winfrey's talk show encouraging parents to both talk and listen to their young ones.

``It's very reassuring for children to hear their parents' voice,'' Mrs. Bush said.

She spoke from experience. Spirited to a safe place at the height of the attacks, Mrs. Bush got to a telephone and soothed her also-evacuated, scared twin daughters. Then she called her mother, Jenna Welch, at home in Texas.

``She thinks I called to reassure her that I was OK. But the fact is, I called to hear her voice,'' Mrs. Bush said. ``My mother and her generation lived through something very similar, the attack on Pearl Harbor. So I knew she could be reassuring to me.''

Mrs. Bush shifted into action the day after the attacks. She convened her staff, making a point of comforting those in their early 20s who are living away from their families. ``The first thing she wanted to do was make sure we're OK,'' said spokeswoman Ashleigh Adams.

Mrs. Bush said her concern stemmed from the fact that those young people were told to run for their lives when the White House was evacuated. ``Some of the youngest women on my staff just fell apart and wept all day,'' Mrs. Bush said. ``And then, two days later, older people were the ones who were falling apart and weeping, and the younger ones were consoling them.''

She went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to visit soldiers injured as they fled the burning Pentagon. She contacted psychologists for advice on explaining the tragedy to children and wrote two letters for elementary and high school students. She appeared on morning talk shows that day, spreading the message for parents to let children know they are loved.

On Winfrey's show, Mrs. Bush suggested that parents read to their children at night, share meals with them and keep a calm atmosphere at home. Parents should ``put their arms around their children and reassure them,'' she said, and be patient when they ask repeated questions about the attacks.

``Of course we can't explain terrorism,'' Mrs. Bush said. ``It's just a horrible, evil thing, but one good thing out of this is we've seen so much good.''

``I think America has seen her courage and compassion,'' said Bush adviser Karen Hughes.

But the first lady has also displayed a steely resolve. The president said so himself, telling a World Trade Center rescuer who asked about his family: ``Freaked out, the girls are. Wife's OK. She understands we're at war _ got a war mentality.''

Expressing love and keeping up hope are points Mrs. Bush makes repeatedly. She uses simple, heartfelt phrases and maintains a calm bearing that puts those around her at ease.

She stood in her husband's stead at a memorial service Monday for victims of United Flight 93, which crashed in southwestern Pennsylvania after passengers apparently confronted hijackers. Citing the words of poet Khalil Gibran _ ``Love knows not its own depths until the hour of parting'' _ Mrs. Bush urged mourners to remember the last goodbye of one passenger who told his family that he would see them again.

``That brave man was a witness for the greatest hope of all, and the hope that unites us now,'' Mrs. Bush said. ``In hours like this, we learn that our faith is an active faith, that we are called ... to bring hope and comfort where there is despair and sorrow. All of this is the work of the living.''