Laura Bush Finds Her Voice in Manhattan

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First lady Laura Bush and her husband President George W. Bush.

Former President Bill Clinton and Senator John McCain each phoned the White House and asked for the OTHER Bush—the one in the East Wing. Those calls helped set First Lady Laura Bush on a schedule this week that is her most ambitious in six years, reflecting a bolder public posture now that she isn't constrained by re-election politics. She created and was host of a White House Conference on Global Literacy that drew 30 first ladies and spouses of world leaders and 41 ministers of education from around the world among the 250 in attendance. She's speaking Wednesday at the former President's second annual Clinton Global Initiative, and on Thursday she will accept an award from a group chaired by McCain. In between, she's accompanying President George W. Bush to events in Manhattan as part of the 61st annual United Nations General Assembly, appeared at the New York Stock Exchange and is leading a roundtable discussion about the humanitarian crisis in Burma.

This First Lady has always had a quietly aggressive schedule, spending much of 2004 holding rallies and raising money in Democratic and swing areas where her husband would be less welcome. Often, she was introduced by her twin daughters. Now, she is stepping out on the policy stage, serving as what her chief of staff, Anita B. McBride, calls "the public face of the U.S. government commitment on AIDS, on human rights, on democracy" and "a voice for the commitments that the U.S. government is making on these issues."

Mrs. Bush has made 11 solo foreign trips while she's lived in the White House—to Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, Latin America—and more than half of those (seven) have been in the two years since the President was re-elected. McBride, who in September was elevated to the top rank of White House aides as an Assistant to the President, said the first topic Mrs. Bush brought up with her when she was interviewing to be her chief of staff was her desire to go to Afghanistan, which she did last year and this year after having been prevented from going earlier, primarily for security reasons.

McBride said in a pre-trip meeting with reporters that in a second term, "You are freed up to do a lot more of the things that you really want to do." Susan Whitson, the First Lady's press secretary, added that she wants to use that freedom to leave a lasting record on issues she has always had an interest in; it's just that now she's expanding that interest. Her staff didn't mention it, but polls show the First Lady is roughly twice as popular as her husband. And she does not carry the baggage he does internationally, so she can serve as an appealing ambassador for an Administration that needs all the friends it can get.

The White House Conference on Global Literacy was held Monday at the New York Public Library, with booths providing simultaneous translations in Arabic, Portuguese and other languages. Guests included her mother, Jenna Welch, and mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, who had made literacy her signature issue when she was First Lady. Here's how it originated: When the United States re-entered UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 2003, the group made her Honorary Ambassador for the Decade of Literacy. The First Lady, who has a master's in library science from the University of Texas, wanted to do something substantive so that it wasn't just a title.

"By investing in literacy and education, governments build their economies," she told Monday's gathering. "When people read, they're more likely to participate in business and trade, which leads to greater economic development." After her remarks, the President stopped by on his way to his United Nations events, and as usual, he made the point more bluntly. "Laura believes strongly in the power of literacy to change societies," he said. "You can't have prosperity unless people can read. It's just as simple as that." After the President left, the group enjoyed a luncheon of chilled green pea soup, grilled wild Alaskan salmon, and glazed autumn vegetables, and corn pudding and deep dish apple pie, with performances by the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Young People's Chorus of New York City.

At Clinton's star-studded conference, following his personal invitation with that phone call, Mrs. Bush will announce a public-private partnership that will fund equipment to help bring clean water to Africa, starting in the sub-Sahara and then expanding to other regions. She and a group of women entrepreneurs rang the closing bell at the stock exchange, which she said was "really fun." Back in Washington, McCain and the International Republican Institute will salute her as an advocate of freedom for her work promoting education and literacy.

Mrs. Bush has an odd job, where you're expected both to be the nation's best hostess and also to care about safe issues. She hasn't done something as dramatic as run for Senate, like her predecessor. But for a quiet librarian who told George W. Bush she would marry him only if she didn't have to give speeches, she is talking louder than she ever expected.