Tuesday, April 25
LENOX

So there she was, in person, the woman who dines with the leader of the free world, the woman who sleeps next to him, the woman who has had his ear during their 28 years of marriage.

Laura W. Bush, the first lady of the United States, was in Lenox yesterday to speak at The Mount — the 49.5-acre estate where author Edith Wharton lived from 1902 to 1911 — in celebration of the return of Wharton's 2,600-book library from England.

A little after 4 p.m., the first lady, looking as warm and elegant as she appears on television, thanked The Mount's VIPs for having her in Lenox.

"I'm so happy to be here in the Berkshires, which really are breathtaking," Bush said. "Your town is blessed with both the beauty of God's creation and man's. Because, in addition to being a mountain retreat, Lenox is also a beacon of culture, literature, art, theater and music."

Then it was time for a lighter moment, one that drew laughs from the more than 100 supporters and friends of the drive to preserve Wharton's history.

"Now I'm told that another big attraction in Lenox is the Canyon Ranch Spa," said Bush, 59. "When people heard I was coming to Lenox for preservation, they thought I was going there. But today I'm here to ... talk about how we can make sure our historical treasures — like Edith Wharton's home and library — are preserved for future generations."

The first lady, a former librarian, spoke for less than 10 minutes, apparently heeding the advice she gave her husband earlier in the day for his immigration-reform speech far from the Berkshires — in Irvine, Calif.

"Laura sends her very best," the 43rd president of the United States told the crowd in Irvine. "I, of course, checked in with her this morning before I headed over here to see if she had any additional instructions for me for the day. She said, 'Keep it short.' I'm a lucky man to have Laura as a wife.''

Two different states, but one bond between Mr. and Mrs. Bush. She was in Massachusetts, he was in California. Both used humor, one of the few things that have worked for the president amid one of the most questionably conceived military initiatives in U.S. history, the war in Iraq.

There was no press conference in Lenox yesterday, no opportunity for questions. After Laura Bush shook hands with guests in the front row, and before she quickly departed the 3,000-square-foot tent that had served as her speaking arena, a woman in the audience said: "Say hi to your husband."

That would be George W. Bush, the man Rolling Stone magazine referred to on its May 4 cover as possibly the worst president in U.S. history.

That was a backdrop to this anything-but-routine day in the Berkshires. Guests were given background checks before they were cleared to be on the guest list. Secret Service personnel were stationed in strategic positions on the grounds. Uniformed police officers stood just outside the tent.

But for such a historic visit to the Berkshires — the first in the 21st century by a member of a presidential family — the atmosphere on this day of intermittent sunshine was relatively laid-back.

There were no tight security checks, such as the ones some travelers undergo in airports.

There was no frisking, as ticket-holders sometimes are subjected to at rock concerts.

And there was no overt display of force by law-enforcement personnel. Secret Service agents were identified by their professional demeanors, their athletic builds and their red, star-decorated pins — not the guns and 45 rounds of ammunition they concealed in their inner wear.

Secret Service members spoke cautiously, saying only that there were "quite a few" of them on duty at The Mount. When asked for a specific number, the answer again came out: "quite a few."

Within our own community, Mike Smith, a patrolman for the Lenox Police Department who kept watch near the back of the tent, said he volunteered for the assignment yesterday.

"It's an honor to be here," Smith said. "It's a nice opportunity to be able to work this."

But the day wasn't just about law enforcement.

Caterer Amy Loveless, who lives in West Stockbridge, said yesterday's function probably was the most important she'd ever worked.

"But the people I'm most impressed with are the people who like to eat," Loveless said, smiling.

Stephanie Copeland, president and executive director of the estate, had no trouble relaying the significance of Bush's visit.

"This is no doubt the most exciting and important day in The Mount's history," she said, adding after the speech that the first lady is "a beautiful person — inside and out."

As the guests filed out of the tent, clouds gathered in an ominous fashion, and it began to sprinkle.

The bright part of the day was over. Now it was time to return to the cold realities of a nation at war.