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Laura Bush Defines Her Policy Role

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First Lady Laura Bush is taking an increasingly public role on foreign policy matters - from the status of women in the Middle East, to repression in Burma. VOA White House Correspondent Paula Wolfson reports Mrs. Bush focused on these issues in a nationally broadcast interview Sunday on American television.

Presidential spouses in the United States often champion a cause. But usually, the issues they pick are close to home, such as promoting adult literacy programs or planting wildflowers along American highways.

Laura Bush, who is a teacher and librarian by training, started out in the traditional way. But as her husband's second term has evolved, her focus has shifted to issues abroad.

Last week, she was in the Middle East raising a sensitive subject for many Arab women - breast cancer. She says the social stigma is so great in some parts of the region that many women fail to seek help until it is too late.

"So many more die there with breast cancer than in the United States because early detection is the only thing we have - the closest thing we have to a cure," said Mrs. Bush.

During an appearance on Fox News Sunday program, Mrs. Bush acknowledged that part of the reason for her trip was to help improve America's image in the Arab world by highlighting concern for women's health. But she stressed that she learned as much about Arab women as they did about her. She said stereotypes were broken on both sides - especially in Saudi Arabia, where she met women who were fully veiled.

"I told them that I had always felt that they were closed to me that I would not be able to reach them because of the way they are covered," added Mrs. Bush. "And one of the women said to me - she said 'You know, I may all dressed in black, but I am transparent.' And what they were saying to me is they want to reach out, they want American women to know what they are like."

The first lady said she has come to realize that her role as the wife of the President of the United States gives her a platform to speak out when she thinks she can make a difference. That has been particularly true when it comes to Burma.

In a VOA interview last month, she voiced support for the pro-democracy movement and urged Burmese soldiers to refrain from violence against those seeking freedom.

She told FOX News Sunday that she has long been inspired by the leader of the Burmese opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, noting she is the only Nobel Peace Prize winner living under house arrest.

"When I learned about her story, then I learned about Burma and how repressed they are by this military junta that leads Burma - that is the government," she continued. "In fact, I just learned about 90 percent of the people in Burma make less than a dollar a day. Burma was the breadbasket of Asia, it was known for its intellectual people, its wonderful culture and now it is just in total shambles."

During the televised interview, Mrs. Bush was also asked about domestic political issues, and the outlook for the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign.

She was asked if Senator Hillary Clinton's eight years as first lady provided good training to be president. Mrs. Bush said it is possible to learn a great deal about the workings of the White House as first lady, but then stressed she will be voting for the Republican Party candidate in next year's election.

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