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A Read on the First Lady

Laura Bush, Ready to Pick Up The Story Where She Left Off

By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page A44

Campaigning tirelessly, Laura Bush helped to reinstall her husband in the White House -- "She's the reason I won," the president said. But do not expect any public pronouncements from the first lady about spending her political capital.

Mrs. Bush intends to spend the next four years much the same way she spent the last four: using her prominence to champion literacy and education reform, preserve the nation's history, promote its arts and educate women about heart disease. She plans to stay involved with the National Book Festival she started, which last year drew 85,000 people to the Mall to meet nearly 80 authors. Next month, she will go to Europe with the president, and she still hopes she can someday go to Afghanistan.

Laura Bush helps fourth-graders Jennys Vivera, left, and Davaye Mitchell read to a kindergarten class at Cesar Chavez Elementary in Hyattsville. The first lady plans to continue her work promoting education reform. (James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

When the first lady moved to Pennsylvania Avenue, she was still adjusting to her empty nest, with her twin daughters off at college and rarely visiting. Now her daughter Jenna is living nearby and working at a Washington charter school.

"She is glad to have another four years," said Gordon Johndroe, Mrs. Bush's press secretary. "She is going to have a robust and active schedule this term. People are going to see a lot of her."

The first lady is a woman distinctly uninterested in taking credit for her accomplishments. Asked how Mrs. Bush and her staff evaluate whether she had been effective in her first term, Johndroe says signs of the first lady's impact are "mostly anecdotal." He cited a woman from Kansas who wrote Mrs. Bush to thank her for saving her life. After seeing Mrs. Bush on local television list heart attack symptoms, the woman immediately went to a hospital and learned that she had suffered a heart attack.

But those who labor on projects Mrs. Bush has showcased are certain her interest has expanded their federal funding and strengthened their programs' reputations. She may not pick up the phone and lobby legislators, they say, but she doesn't have to. (Through Johndroe, Mrs. Bush declined to be interviewed by this reporter for this article.)

In 2001, Teach for America, which trains college graduates to teach in poor urban and rural schools, placed 1,000 teachers in 13 areas. Then the first lady began talking up the program and last year it placed more than 3,000 teachers in 22 areas. In that same period, federal funding grew from $1.6 million to $10 million, and the program's overall budget more than tripled, to $38 million.

To draw attention to Teach for America, Mrs. Bush taught in New York classrooms, appeared at recruiting events in Arizona and the Mississippi Delta and spoke at a national fundraising event in San Francisco. "I truly believe that Laura Bush's support was one of the things that helped catapult us forward," said Wendy Kopp, the president and founder of Teach for America.

As a former librarian, the first lady has been a powerful friend to libraries, says Emily Sheketoff, who heads the Washington office of the American Library Association.

The ALA has sparred with the Bush administration over its attempts, in the name of national security, to curb library patron privacy. Since 9/11, some librarians have howled with disappointment over Mrs. Bush's refusal to wade into the controversy. But, says Sheketoff, the first lady "picks her battles very carefully. She would never do anything contrary to the president's aim."

Quietly, Mrs. Bush instead has worked to avert a crisis -- 40 percent of the nation's librarians will retire in the next decade. She took an early interest in an initiative that funds librarian training and curriculum development, Sheketoff says. In 2002, at a speech at a Topeka, Kan., library, Mrs. Bush announced that the president had included $10 million for the program in his proposed 2003 budget. This year, the program receives $23 million.

"Her valuing of that kind of program matters," said Robert Martin, who is director of the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services and worked with Mrs. Bush in Austin, when her husband was governor and Martin was Texas state librarian. "When the budget goes up to the Hill, they circle that, and [they say] that one's firm, and we not going to cut that. It's sacrosanct."

Mrs. Bush's conviction that libraries are key to an educated populace also helped save the Library Services and Technology Act. Last year, Sheketoff says, the Republican House leadership was not enthusiastic about reauthorizing the law, which helped fund the expansion of Internet access to more than 95 percent of the nation's libraries, which are the No. 1 access point for people without Internet access at home or work. "Then we heard through Republican members of Congress that Mrs. Bush was strongly advocating it be reauthorized," Sheketoff said, "and suddenly we were on the calendar for a vote."

Libraries get most of their funding from local and state government, and the federal funds involved in these initiatives are relatively small, "pocket change," Martin said. "But in this area, you get a lot of bang for the buck."

"This is what makes us so hopeful for the next four years," Sheketoff said. "We have a powerful advocate deep in the recesses of the administration. Everybody has their own style, and she is very effective."

She is such a good spokeswoman for the administration's No Child Left Behind Act, says Andrew Rotherham, director of the 21st Century Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, that he wonders why she doesn't do more.

"She connects in a way that nobody else in the administration does," Rotherham said. "She can communicate to the public what the law is about, in simple digestible terms. She is an enormously underutilized asset."

A Pew Research Center poll last August found that Laura Bush had a favorability rating of 74 percent, much higher than either her husband or Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

"A lot of people wish she would take that repository of good feeling and positive evaluation she has in the public and use it to a greater extent," said Myra Gutin, a professor at Rider University and an expert in first ladies. "But I don't see any major changes coming. I don't think she is going to announce for the Senate from Texas."

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