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First lady's schedule filled with world issues

First lady's schedule filled with world issues

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WASHINGTON -- As her husband prepares his annual address to the United Nations next week, Laura Bush also is ascending the global stage.

The first lady is putting the finishing touches on a conference to improve reading skills in the world's most illiterate countries, a roundtable discussion on Burma to press for the release of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, and a speech on health problems facing women worldwide.

Her activities next week in New York underscore how Bush is pursuing her own second-term agenda -- one that gets her out more to champion favorite causes and that some analysts say also helps burnish her husband's image and that of the United States around the world.

In an interview last week with USA TODAY, Bush dismissed with a smile the notion that her work might help the president overcome criticism in Europe and elsewhere. She said such talk is "maybe slightly exaggerated in the media."

"I'm traveling because I have this opportunity to talk about things that are important to me and that are important to our country," she said.

A poll released this month of people in European countries said only 18% of respondents approve of President Bush's handling of foreign affairs, compared with 39% in the USA. With that in mind, the first lady's personable style can be an asset, according to pollster Andrew Kohut.

"Even many people who don't like President Bush here like her," said Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "Maybe she can lend a hand on the other side of the Atlantic."

Barbara Kellerman, a public policy lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, said Laura Bush's popularity ratings have been above 60%. Kellerman said a first lady can help by being "what we used to call an ambassador of goodwill."

Bush said she focuses on a wide range of global issues, including the impact of HIV and AIDS in Africa, that have long been personal concerns. She wants people in foreign countries to know they are not alone in facing these problems, she said.

"The people of the United States are standing with them as they address these various challenges," she said.

First ladies have long mixed advocacy with ceremony around the world. Eleanor Roosevelt became the first presidential spouse to fly overseas without her husband during a 1934 trip to the Virgin Islands, Haiti, and Cuba to inspect labor, housing and farm conditions. Nancy Reagan attended the 1981 wedding of Britain's Prince Charles and Diana Spencer and participated in an anti-drug program in Sweden six years later.

Bush's predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, made at least 23 solo trips abroad, many of them focused on women's education and human rights for children.

Laura Bush so far has made 11 solo foreign trips, White House records show. She was the first member of her family to visit Afghanistan after the Taliban's fall, and the first to meet with Pope Benedict XVI.

At times, Bush has attracted controversy overseas. During visits last year to Jerusalem shrines sacred to both Jews and Muslims, a group of Palestinians heckled her. She played down the incident, telling reporters at the time, "I knew very well exactly how emotions run in this very, very important part of the world."

At the U.N., Bush -- a former librarian and schoolteacher -- will participate in a literacy conference co-sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. UNESCO has developed plans in 34 countries to show how improving literacy can have health and economic benefits, Bush said. "People who are educated are much more likely to be able to contribute to a workforce."

As the president addresses the U.N General Assembly on Tuesday, the first lady's roundtable will discuss the plight of Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner whose party won elections in 1990 only to be blocked from taking power by the military junta that controls the nation, also known as Myanmar. Bush calls Suu Kyi, under house arrest off and on ever since, a "role model for women around the world."

Bush plans separate events in Vietnam during her husband's trip there in November and continues a domestic focus on the midterm elections. A woman who once told her husband she never wanted to make a political speech, Bush has been featured in at least 30 GOP events since last year and has helped raise almost $12 million, according to Republican Party records.

Sarah Feinberg of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said the first lady's political influence is most evident in fundraising. "We haven't seen her move any races."

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© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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