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First Lady Married to Agenda, for Better or Worse

Laura Bush chooses Teach for America as a cause, but not all of its members and alumni are thrilled. Her husband's policies can become a sticking point.

April 25, 2001|FAYE FIORE and MASSIE RITSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — It is the opportunity public service groups wait years for: The first lady decides to embrace the organization as her celebrated cause, guaranteeing free media exposure, lucrative donations and a ticket out of obscurity.

But when Laura Bush adopted Teach for America, a nonprofit group that recruits college graduates to teach in disadvantaged schools, not all of the 6,000 corps members and alumni were pleased.

At the organization's West Coast conference in Santa Barbara last month, several members wore anti-Bush stickers: button-size barbs bearing the first lady's name, run through with a red slash.

When invitations went out listing Mrs. Bush as guest of honor at the May 1 fund-raising dinner in New York, some alumni called headquarters, concerned about her name being associated with the group. Rumors stirred that she might be invited to sit on the board of directors, spurring protests from teachers who objected to her husband's political agenda. And fears still loom that President Bush might cut the organization's funding, as it is supported in part by AmericaCorps, a Clinton administration creation.

"In some ways, I'm thrilled. But we are a little scared of what [President] Bush is going to do with our program and whether he's going to cut the funds," said Laura Phelan, a Teach for America kindergarten instructor at Augusta A. Mayo Elementary in Compton.

The backlash aimed at Mrs. Bush is not nearly as intense as that sparked by some of her husband's policies. But it provides a window into the world of White House image-making--and the sometimes uneasy marriage between political figures and the ordinary people who sometimes serve as their cast members.

Philanthropic groups, fire stations and schoolchildren long have been staples in the permanent campaign to produce a benevolent image for public officials eager to tout worthy causes. It is a strategy that occupies much of a president's schedule, and virtually all of a first lady's.

Just last week, President Bush rolled a pair of dice in a game of "math baseball" to help students learn about fractions. And last month, the first lady read to second-graders sitting on the floor of a San Fernando school library.

But there is no escaping political discord in these divided times, even for a traditional first lady who takes pains to avoid controversy. Mrs. Bush prefers invitation-only audiences, keeps to prepared remarks and leaves without taking questions, but she still is not insulated from her husband's agenda.

"The issue is that she's married to a man who does things some don't like," said one Teach for America board member who declined to be named to avoid offending the White House.

There is an almost inherent tension in Mrs. Bush's chosen mission. She has made teacher recruitment a central goal, yet teacher unions have been one of the Democratic Party's main constituencies.

Most Teach for America members are Democrats. About 60% are women; many support abortion rights. The concerns about Mrs. Bush have come from a "small but not insignificant group"--mostly in California and Arizona, organization leaders said.

Kate Sobel, a first-grade teacher at Mayo, is among those wondering where the first lady's involvement will lead. She worries that the administration's policies will hurt her students and their families, whom she described as "working poor."

While the group's board of directors welcomes Mrs. Bush's support, particularly in light of its goal to double in size in three years, they emphasize that she never was asked to sit on the board.

"We are so committed to not being a partisan organization," said Wendy Kopp, who founded the New York-based group in 1989. "At a certain level, the person in the role of first lady is sort of above politics. And when you have a first lady or a president saying they want to be supportive, it's just an opportunity to take the organization to a higher level."

For Mrs. Bush, the qualms caused by her link with Teach for America is a rare fleck of controversy in her thus-far pacific tenure at the White House. Indeed, historians view her three-month, virtually trouble-free ride as long, considering her husband's bitterly contested election.

"This is all part of a larger, ongoing baptism by fire that every first lady goes through," said Carl Anthony, a Los Angeles-based historian of presidential spouses. "Any first lady who takes on any kind of public role will engender supporters and detractors. . . . Even the lending of her name to something can be a factor."

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