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First Lady Takes Stage With Her No. 2

In promoting a social program targeting gang violence, Laura Bush debuts in an official policy role with the president as a sidekick.

March 08, 2005|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH — As the quarter-mile-long presidential motorcade pulled up at the Community College of Allegheny County on Monday, hundreds of Bush supporters waited excitedly for a White House-sponsored event to highlight one of the president's priorities.

But as the program on the $150-million initiative to curb gang violence commenced, it became clear that the VIP of the day was the first lady.

President Bush had come to Pennsylvania to play second fiddle, serving as Laura Bush's warmup act. Or, as he put it, with a mixture of chagrin and pride: "The truth of the matter is, I'm the introducer."

The first couple's joint appearance in an overheated gym underscored the increasingly public role that Laura Bush is embracing in her husband's second term. During the president's recent trip to Europe, she left him in Belgium and went ahead on her own to Germany for an address to U.S. troops.

Now, in championing a social program that targets young people, Laura Bush is assuming her first official policy role as first lady. She told Monday's audience that she "eagerly accepted" when her husband asked her to lead the youth initiative.

Bush announced the program -- an outgrowth of his faith-based initiative, which works to include religious organizations in government-funded social service programs -- in his Feb. 2 State of the Union address. It seeks to funnel $150 million over three years to churches and other community groups that mentor at-risk children, particularly boys 8 to 17 in cities with high gang activity.

So far, Laura Bush has promoted the program on solo trips to Philadelphia, Detroit and Baltimore. This was the first time she was joined by her husband, who had promised when he proposed to her that she would never have to give a political speech.

"This is a real role reversal," she said with a grin as the president sat behind her, slightly slouched in a swivel chair, his legs crossed. "I've listened to a million of his speeches. Now he's going to get to listen to one of mine."

The president introduced his wife by saying: "We have got to make sure that the great strength of our country -- the hearts and souls of our citizens -- are directed in such a way that every child can be saved. We're worried about gangs, we're worried about drugs, we're worried about bad choices."

During her remarks, which lasted about 20 minutes, Laura Bush announced a White House conference this fall that would focus on the initiative's goals. In conjunction with the conference, she said, the administration will publish a guidebook on ways to help communities better reach at-risk youths.

Before their college appearance, the first couple toured the Providence Family Support Center on Pittsburgh's north side. They mingled with young children enrolled in after-school programs and with teens in "positive development" programs.

"I'm George," Bush told two fourth-graders as he sat down between them.

To one longtime observer of first families and first ladies, Laura Bush's growing public role in the policy arena is no surprise.

"In second terms, you really do tend to see first ladies take on a more overt policy role," said author Carl Sferrazza Anthony.

"Probably the campaign helped give her sea legs in terms of addressing issues that were seen as beyond her general purview," Anthony said of the first lady.

Championing the anti-gang cause also marked something of a shift for the first lady, who during the 2000 election was widely portrayed by the Bush campaign and the Republican Party as an antidote to Hillary Rodham Clinton, a frequently polarizing figure during her husband's two terms in office. Until now, Laura Bush, a former teacher and elementary school librarian, had focused largely on promoting literacy and awareness of cardiovascular disease among women.

The two first ladies, Anthony said, actually agree on a number of issues -- including historic preservation, the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban, opposition to overturning the Roe vs. Wade decision on abortion, and the importance of abstinence in reducing the number of abortions.

The difference in the way they are perceived, he said, has more to do with their "very different styles."

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