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First lady expands her role to policy with anti-gang initiative

WASHINGTON—Crips, Bloods and—Laura Bush?

In his State of the Union address, President Bush tapped his wife, a former librarian, to oversee a new $150 million, three-year program to assist at-risk youths ages 8 to 17 and help reduce gang violence and membership.

The job is Laura Bush's first official policy role in her husband's administration, a recognition of her public popularity and a testament to her effectiveness as a campaigner for her husband and his causes.

Bush will take the traditional first lady's approach to the problem—highlighting the issue by visiting troubled areas and drawing attention to people and programs that steer kids away from gangs toward positive, nurturing activities.

She made her debut in the role Thursday in Philadelphia, where she visited the Germantown Boys and Girls Club. Invoking her experience as a former elementary school teacher and librarian, Bush emphasized that "the first five years of life are critical" to nurturing good behavior in older children.

"Research shows that boys who exhibit highly aggressive behavior as early as kindergarten have a greater chance of being involved in drugs and violence as adolescents," Bush said. She praised the Boys and Girls Club as the kind of community center where children can find strong role models in a safe environment where they can develop healthy values.

Taking up a social cause is nothing new for first ladies: Hillary Clinton hawked affordable health care; Barbara Bush promoted literacy; Nancy Reagan headed the "Just Say No" to drugs youth campaign; and Lady Bird Johnson pitched beautification of America.

But dealing with gangs is something new for Bush and the office of first lady. Her appointment turned heads among scholars who've viewed Bush heretofore as a more traditional first lady, in the mold of Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower.

"Other first ladies have been asked to undertake responsibilities, it's the topic that's new ground," said Myra Gutin, a communications professor at New Jersey's Rider University and an expert on first ladies. "I had always thought that Laura Bush would stay with education issues and literacy."

Bush chafes when she hears the "traditional" line, viewing it as a disparaging remark hurled mostly by elitist academics who don't know her. The first lady and her aides point out that she played a formidable role in her husband's re-election campaign last year and is a top fund-raising attraction for Republicans.

Lewis Gould, a retired University of Texas at Austin professor who's editing a series of books on first ladies, suspects that Bush, like her husband, is trying to build a legacy in the second term by doing something that no other first lady has done.

"It is a departure for her," Gould said. "Mrs. Reagan would be the most notable example of a first lady's involvement in a youth program. I imagine she's (Laura's) concerned about her legacy, which has been indistinct over the last four years."

In addressing gangs, Bush has a big job ahead of her. About 750,000 individuals nationwide belong to gangs, according to Justice Department statistics. More than 90 percent of gang members are male, but female membership is rising, White House officials said.

Law enforcement officials said Bush, with her high profile, can play a valuable role in helping steer kids away from gangs and raising public awareness about a problem that's widespread throughout cities, suburbs and rural communities.

"To have a non-law enforcement person involved is probably a good thing in terms of trying to reach kids prone to joining gangs. She has a history of being involved with kids," said Jim Pasco, the executive director of the 318,000-member National Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed President Bush in 2000 and 2004. "She gives us another point of access in the White House and another ear, which we'll gladly take."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Laura Bush

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