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.
Laura Bush works out of an office in the East Wing, where some shelves are reserved for children's books. Still, she is hardly lacking in opinions, even if she is careful to ensure that they rarely eclipse those of her husband.
A casually elegant woman with a penetrating gaze, Bush often wears a Cheshire-cat smile that admirers say both conceals and protects her independence. She proved to be a steadying hand for the nation after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, by going on national television with advice for parents on how to help their children cope with the disaster. Aides say she has strong views on women's and educational issues but makes them known selectively within the administration.
Peter Smith, assistant director general for UNESCO, met with her twice in planning for a literacy conference and was impressed. "She is a person of enormous passion on literacy," he said. "It is not that she jumps up or shouts about things. Her passion has an enduring, no-nonsense quality to it."
Some admirers have been quick to contrast her with her predecessor, but Laura Bush dismisses such comparisons.
"I don't bake cookies," she said during a 2004 White House interview with the Chicago Tribune in 2004. Protesting that the press is often eager to put the first lady in a box, she added: "The people who have lived here are more complicated than that."
During a visit to Africa last year, she surprised the president by telling reporters he should consider a woman to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Later, when the president nominated little-known White House counsel Harriet E. Miers for the post, provoking a revolt among some in the right wing of the GOP that eventually forced Miers's withdrawal, Bush speculated that some of the opposition to Miers may have been motivated by sexism. She has publicly lamented that some politicians have made a campaign issue of same-sex marriage -- even as her husband reaffirmed his support of a constitutional amendment to ban such unions.
The first lady delivered a presidential radio address in November 2001 on the plight of women in Afghanistan under the repressive Taliban regime. And she also pressed to visit that country, a wish that was fulfilled last year.
"Those are the things that she says she has always had an interest in -- it's just now she's expanding that interest," said Susan Whitson, her press secretary.
Her work has taken center stage this week in New York. During the global literacy conference, whose participants included first ladies from 32 nations, she was clear in her conviction that literacy is a cornerstone of liberty and self-sufficiency. Two-thirds of the world's 771 million illiterate adults are women, Bush said.
"By investing in literacy and education, governments build their economies," she said in the meeting's opening remarks.
During a meeting at the United Nations Tuesday, Bush sat at the head of a semicircular table as half a dozen health experts and officials from relief organizations briefed her on the drug trade and sex trafficking and on the horrific health and human rights problems in Burma, which is also known as Myanmar.
In remarks before the meeting, Bush said she has taken an interest in Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy activist and Nobel laureate who remains under house arrest in Burma.
"Her example of her life actually calls attention to the situation in her country," Bush said. "And because of the attention that she gets from people around the world, we also now look at Burma and we want to see what we can do -- is there anything we can do to make sure she, as well as all the other political prisoners, are released, and that her country can reconcile."