First Lady Is Playing a Major Role on the World Stage

Monday in New York, first lady Laura Bush watched as Gloria Ncanywa of the group Mothers2Mothers took her turn banging the gavel at the New York Stock Exchange. The first lady rang the closing bell.
Monday in New York, first lady Laura Bush watched as Gloria Ncanywa of the group Mothers2Mothers took her turn banging the gavel at the New York Stock Exchange. The first lady rang the closing bell. (By Richard Drew -- Associated Press)
By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

NEW YORK -- On Monday, Laura Bush convened an international conference on literacy. Tuesday, she hosted a roundtable aimed at prodding the United Nations into action on the humanitarian crisis in Burma. Wednesday, she will address the Clinton Global Initiative. And Thursday, she is to receive a major international award.

By any measure, it is a busy week. It is particularly so for a first lady praised by some admirers as the "anti-Hillary" for her seeming preference for eschewing controversy and for embracing a more traditional role as first lady.

"Any one of those events on their own for a first lady is significant," said Anita McBride, Laura Bush's chief of staff. "Together, they are profound."

Laura Bush has proved to be a popular and comforting presence during the nearly six years that her husband has served as president. But she has mostly steered clear of a sustained public policy role, even as she has quietly championed issues close to her heart, including literacy, education, combating HIV and the rights of women.

Her portfolio is no different -- or more controversial -- this week. But her sustained presence at the center of the world stage is unprecedented, which White House aides are promoting in the belief that her emerging profile can only help bolster President Bush's sagging popularity.

Meanwhile, the first lady, once a reluctant campaigner, has established herself as a fundraising force for the GOP. In the current election cycle, she has appeared at 33 political events, raising nearly $12.4 million -- a substantial increase over 2002, according to the Republican National Committee.

The president has been a polarizing political presence both at home and abroad, but his wife remains popular. A Gallup-USA Today poll in June found that 69 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the first lady, much higher than the president's approval rating of 40 percent.

"I think she is the most popular Republican in the country right now," said Myra G. Gutin, a first-lady historian at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. "I think the public relations value is tremendous. It's not out of the ordinary for the first lady to be called upon when her popularity exceeds that of her husband."

Along with her expanding political role, Laura Bush is becoming a high-profile ambassador for the social and humanitarian portions of the president's agenda. In the nearly two years since the start of his second term, she has embarked on seven solo international trips -- three more than she took during the entire first term. Many of them have given her an up-close view of the AIDS crisis, human rights abuses and the repression that women encounter in many corners of the globe.

"She's been the face of, as far as the public face of, the U.S. government commitment on AIDS, on human rights, on democracy," McBride said. "So I think he's seen what all of you have seen -- she's been a voice for the commitments that the U.S. government is making on these issues."

This all represents a long journey for a former teacher and librarian who asked her future husband to promise never to ask her to give a political speech. Her relative silence on policy issues is far different from that of her predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Hillary Clinton maintained an office in the West Wing of the White House, which is populated by top presidential policymakers, and she was the chief architect of the Clinton administration's failed effort to restructure the nation's health-care system.

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