AP Interview: Laura Bush urges nation to confront poverty and race ‘in a different way’
WASHINGTON – Laura Bush, former inner-city teacher, says Hurricane Katrina could have a silver lining if it forces the nation to respond “in a different way” to difficult poverty and racial problems.”A large percentage of our population probably doesn’t realize what inner cities are really like and has looked away from that,” Bush told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday.The first lady sat down in the White House’s Map Room to promote this weekend’s National Book Festival, a daylong event on the National Mall that she has put on in concert with the Library of Congress for five years – a tradition she started as first lady of Texas.But she readily allowed the brief interview to range beyond books to more difficult issues like Katrina and the Supreme Court vacancy now before President Bush. With her popularity in polls twice that of her husband’s, which is stuck at a record-low level, Mrs. Bush often plays the president’s chief defender and puts a smiling, trusted face on administration policies.Mrs. Bush has been to the Gulf Coast four times, once alongside her husband, and has held events around Washington devoted to the hurricane response. Her husband, beset with criticism about the government’s initial response to Katrina, traveled to the region for a fifth time Tuesday and is returning again this weekend.”He has to. That’s his job,” Mrs. Bush said matter-of-factly. “That’s what happens when you run for president. You don’t know what might happen like this.”Then, in a wifely endorsement, she said, “Fortunately he is really strong and so I’m confident that he’ll be able to sustain the level of attention that he’ll have to – and not just to that, also to the war in Iraq, to foreign policy and to all the other issues that are on the desk of the president of the United States.”With her husband called upon – and promising – to take bold new action on racial inequities in the wake of the storm, Mrs. Bush held up the 2002 No Child Left Behind education law as the signature example of how the Bush administration has been fighting poverty from the start. White House aides say the law is fueling higher achievement levels, particularly for poor and minority students – though there is little data to prove that.But she said she also hopes for a broader national discussion of poverty and race. “I think it’s really important for us to talk about it in a different way,” said Mrs. Bush, who over three decades ago taught elementary students at an inner-city school in Houston and was a school librarian in a poor Austin neighborhood.Without offering specifics, she urged policymakers to tackle not only improving education so that poor and minority children have a leg up in life, but increasing the amount of affordable housing stock and the jobs available to those who most need them. She pressed for job training programs, whether through the government or unions or corporations.”Because of the devastation on the coast, there will be a neighborhood and a housing discussion that’ll be possible that really was not possible before,” she said. “And then the employment piece of it is also very, very important. … If a large number of people can come out with skills that they didn’t have before, that will be one silver lining.”She pleaded with Americans who have been so generous and focused not to turn away from the staggering need in the Gulf Coast before the job is done.”That’s going to be the hard part for everyone, and that is to sustain the amount of help that evacuees are getting to do the long, long hard work that’s going to be required,” Mrs. Bush said. “It’s particularly hard for Americans, because we’re so impatient and we think that everything ought to be fixed yesterday.”As for the book festival, it has added a Katrina focus this year by prominently featuring “Book Relief,” a joint project between the Library of Congress and the nonprofit First Book that hopes to deliver 5 million books – up from 100,000 gathered so far – to storm evacuees, libraries and schools whose collections were wiped out.The first lady repeated her desire to see her husband nominate a woman to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, whose retirement will leave Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the Supreme Court’s sole female, and said “there are qualified women that are in the pool” of potential nominees being considered.”It’s important to have women in those jobs, just like I think it’s important for women to be in every field in our country,” she said.But she hedged on whether the president would heed her wishes.”Whether it’s a woman or a man, I know they’ll be highly qualified,” she said.Vail, Colorado
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