LOS ANGELES—Laura Bush looked around the table of heavily tattooed former gang members and felons and asked a question that cut to the point of her visit last week to a warehouse in a grimy industrial part of town.
"When you were a child and you went and chose the path to go to a gang, do you think there was anything anyone could have done at that point in your life that would have directed you another way?" she asked members of Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program.
Bush was searching for answers on a West Coast swing that was part of the three-year, $150 million White House initiative President Bush put her in charge of—to help at-risk youths and curb youth membership in street gangs. The program will channel the money to churches, community groups and other efforts that deal with at-risk children, especially boys ages 8 to 17.
Bush's three-day, four-city tour was a shakedown cruise of sorts. It was also the latest example of her shifting role in the president's second term—from a so-called traditional first lady, whose duties are primarily cosmetic, to becoming a more active and visible partner in policy 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, called "Brightstar." "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."
These days, her approval rating hovers around 80 percent—much higher than her husband's upper 40s—and slightly better than Pope John Paul II's before his death.
While few are ready to call her the next Eleanor Roosevelt or even Hillary Rodham Clinton, Laura Bush is becoming more of a mover and shaker in the White House, starting with her own office.
With a new chief of staff, press secretary, social secretary and speechwriter, Bush has turned over about half her major staff positions. And her East Wing office wasn't the only part of the White House to get an extreme makeover.
She canned White House chef Walter Scheib III earlier this year and is looking for someone who can whip up mouth-watering barbecue and spicy Tex-Mex dishes.
A new chef would fit into her goal of opening wide the White House doors and socializing more, something she and the president did little of in his first term.
Bush downplays talk of a new, improved Laura. But she acknowledged last week that she's consciously raising her profile.
"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," she said. "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 beginning of the new Laura Bush began during last year's presidential campaign, when she toured extensively for her husband and GOP congressional candidates.
She remains a top GOP fund-raising attraction. After meeting with the former gang members on last 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. A recent 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.
Last week's trip was her first extended venture on the initiative, and it showed.
Initially, her staff said a roundtable talk with ex-gang members would be off-limits to the media 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.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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