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Anti-gang initiative highlights first lady's more active, visible role

WASHINGTON—Laura Bush had had enough of her husband's lame dinner banquet jokes.

In a ballroom full of journalists, politicians and celebrities from the entertainment and sports world, the first lady got out of her seat, gently pushed President Bush away from the podium and let loose.

"I've been attending these dinners for years and just quietly sitting there," she said at Saturday night's White House Correspondents' Dinner, a Washington tradition. "I've got a few things I want to say for a change."

The president may be taking the world through exciting times, but that excitement doesn't necessarily extend to the White House living quarters after dark, she complained.

"Nine o'clock and Mr. Excitement here is sound asleep and I'm watching `Desperate Housewives'—with Lynne Cheney," she said, referring to the popular ABC television series and the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney. "Ladies and gentleman, I am a desperate housewife."

The first lady's surprise skit brought down the house and illustrates her shifting role in the president's second term—from a so-called traditional first lady whose primary duties were ceremonial, to a more active and visible partner with a meaningful portfolio.

"I have more of a forum because people know me better than they did when I started," Bush told reporters aboard her Air Force jet, dubbed "Brightstar," as it whisked its way from Portland, Ore., Thursday night. "People are more interested in what I have to say than when we started. I mean, I really wasn't on the radar screen, I think, until after September 11 (2001)."

These days, her approval rating hovers around 80 percent much better than her husband's upper 40s, and slightly better than Pope John Paul II's before his death.

While few are ready to proclaim her the next Eleanor Roosevelt, or even Hillary Rodham Clinton, Laura Bush is coming into her own.

She flew 34 hours for a six-hour visit to war-torn Afghanistan last month. Last week, she stopped in a gritty industrial section of Los Angeles to meet with heavily-tattooed former gang members and felons for the White House's Helping America's Youth program, a three-year, $150 million initiative.

The effort seeks to help at-risk youths—particularly boys ages 8 to 17—and curb street gang membership by channeling federal money to churches, community groups and other existing programs.

While promoting her initiative on a three-day, four-city West Coast tour, Bush also found time last week to appear on NBC's "Tonight Show" with Jay Leno and headline a Republican National Committee fundraiser in Los Angeles that raised more than $400,000.

She's been busy inside the White House as well. With a new chief of staff, press secretary, social secretary, and speechwriter, Bush has replaced about half of her major staff positions.

And the extreme makeover didn't stop at her East Wing office.

It reached down to the kitchen, where White House chef Walter Scheib III was canned earlier this year. The first lady said she is looking for someone who can whip up mouth-watering barbecue and spicy Tex-Mex dishes.

The new chef fits into Bush's plan for opening the White House doors wide for more state dinners, entertaining and socializing, something the Bushes did little of during the first term.

The first lady downplays talk of a new, improved Laura. But she acknowledged last week that she's consciously raising her profile.

"I am having fun," she said. "There's a certain, I guess, emotional and maybe psychological relief in a second term, after an election that you know is the last election you'll be involved in. We have an opportunity to build on what we both worked on in the first term. ... The first four years went so quickly."

Several experts on first ladies believe Bush didn't do much in her first four years. White House officials cite her calming influence after the Sept. 11 attacks and that she became the first-ever first lady to deliver a weekly radio address, on Afghanistan, but analysts are unimpressed.

Still, even harsh critics such as historian Louis Gould see a more purposeful Bush emerging.

"I would give her high marks for the first three months of the second term," said Gould, a former University of Texas at Austin professor who's editing a book series on first ladies. "She's made a good start, and it will help her legacy."

To many in Republican circles, the new Laura Bush first appeared during last year's presidential campaign, when she campaigned extensively for her husband and GOP congressional candidates.

She remains a top GOP fund-raising attraction. After meeting with the former gang members on Wednesday, Bush returned to her posh Beverly Hills hotel for a TV interview, a brief rest and a quick change of wardrobe. She then climbed back into her limo and rolled to a swank Republican National Committee fund-raiser.

While fund-raisers are familiar ground, the America's Youth Initiative is new territory for her. Last week's journey to Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., actually began last May when Bush read an article in The New York Times magazine about Ken Thigpen, a Milwaukee man whose life spiraled into a world of drug-dealing and theft.

Hoping to spare his son the same fate, Thigpen abandoned the criminal life for a job as a pizza deliveryman.

"This story ... made me start thinking that, in a lot of ways, we have neglected boys over the last several generations, that we bought into a stereotype of boys that all of us know intuitively is not right, that boys don't need nurturing, that they can take care of themselves, that they don't need special mentoring from a father or really from anyone," she said.

She talked to her husband about the story and expressed an interest in doing something to help boys and at-risk youths in the second term. They talked about it again before his State of the Union address, and he put her in charge of the at-risk youth/anti-gang effort.

This week's trip was her first extended venture on the initiative, and it showed.

Initially, a roundtable discussion with ex-gang-members at Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles gang intervention program, would be off limits to the media, her staff said, because the former gang members didn't want their faces seen or names used. But Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and Homeboy Industries' founder, said his group had no objection to reporters sitting in, so Bush's aides relented, letting one reporter in to share coverage with others.

"We're kind of getting our sea legs, but so far it's fun," said Susan Whitson, the first lady's new press secretary.

The former gang members were giddy about Bush's presence. Boyle said he saw a relaxed first lady who listened patiently and intently.

"It was kind of refreshing," he said. "What will come of it? Who knows, but to have her here made the homies and homegirls feel important."

Gould and others question whether Bush will have the staying power to attain her goals, but the White House plans a major conference on her youth initiatives in the fall, and Bush indicates that she's determined to persevere.

"I have a responsibility to talk about what I think is constructive for our country," she said.

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

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