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STATE OF THE UNION | THE FIRST LADY'S NEW ROLE

Laura Bush to Shepherd Program for Troubled Boys

The assignment from the president follows her recent emergence as a more public figure.

February 03, 2005|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

First Lady Laura Bush, a popular figure and a potent campaigner for her husband's reelection, is taking her first official policy role of the administration: She will oversee a new program to assist troubled boys and curb gang violence.

The program, announced Wednesday by President Bush during his State of the Union address, is to funnel $150 million over three years to churches and other community groups that mentor at-risk children, particularly boys ages 8 to 17 in cities prone to gangs.

It is an expansion of Bush's faith-based initiative, which has won praise from Christian conservatives and black religious leaders who believe religious social service organizations are often more effective than government.

"Our government will continue to support faith-based and community groups that bring hope to harsh places," the president said. "Now we need to focus on giving young people, especially young men in our cities, better options than apathy or gangs or jail."

"Taking on gang life will be one part of a broader outreach to at-risk youth, which involves parents and pastors, coaches and community leaders, in programs ranging from literacy to sports," he said.

The initiative marks a shift for the first lady, who has become a far more public figure than when she moved into the White House in 2001.

Then, she was portrayed by her husband's campaign strategists as the GOP alternative to Hillary Rodham Clinton -- now a senator from New York, but who was criticized when she was first lady for engaging heavily in national policy issues.

Laura Bush has taken to wearing designer suits, and during last year's campaign proved to be one of the president's most effective surrogates. She raised more than $5 million for the campaign effort, and polls showed that she was by far the most popular person on the national ticket from either party.

A former teacher and school librarian, Laura Bush initially focused her time in the White House on promoting literacy. That was also the prime project of her mother-in-law, former First Lady Barbara Bush.

Laura Bush also promoted better heart health among women.

But in taking on a more policy-oriented program, she is moving closer to the realm of Hillary Clinton -- although through an issue less controversial than the healthcare system.

While Wednesday's announcement was a surprise, the first lady had dropped hints that her interest in her husband's second term had evolved toward troubled youths.

"I also want to work with children, and particularly adolescent children and adolescent boys, because I feel like over the last several decades maybe we've neglected boys a little bit," she told ABC's Barbara Walters last month.

"They're the ones who are most often in trouble," Laura Bush said. "There are a larger number of boys [who] drop out of school.... And I just think it's time for Americans to sort of shift our gaze to boys and see what we can do to nurture boys."

Wednesday's announcement comes days after a White House meeting between President Bush and about two dozen black pastors who had backed his reelection. Much of the meeting focused on ways to help troubled African American families.

The anti-gang initiative and Bush's pledge to end racial disparities in the justice system and to add funding for lawyers of death row inmates mirror some of the most pressing issues brought up by the black religious leaders.

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