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Read her lips

Literacy efforts on first lady's agenda

Literacy is a favorite cause for the first lady, a former teacher and librarian.  

(CNN) -- She's not a lawyer, a Yale grad or even very vocal on the nation's policy issues.

Laura Welch Bush has said she tends to keep her views on controversial issues private, but the self-described introvert isn't shy about issues she cares for passionately -- literacy, early childhood development programs and education.

"If you look back," she told TIME magazine in February, "you see that the first ladies tended to focus on just a few issues. ... What a lasting impact that has had on the country. ... I have a forum. I won't have it always. The time is now."

 
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A teacher and a librarian from Midland, Texas, the first lady has the background and the will for just such a mission. Upon meeting her husband's grandmother, Dorothy Walker Bush, Laura answered bluntly, "I read," when asked what she did for a living.

As first lady of Texas, she used her love for the written word to further literacy efforts. She organized an annual book festival that raised nearly $900,000 for more than 350 Texas libraries.

In 1996, Bush helped launch the Family Literacy Initiative for Texas, aimed at promoting underprivileged children's reading readiness when they enter school. The project distributed nearly $1 million for programs encouraging parents to read with their children.

Bush also participated in programs for breast cancer awareness, aid for abused and neglected children, and the arts.

During her five years in the Governor's Mansion, she did not hold a single formal event, People magazine reports, and she does not plan to begin social posturing in the White House. She said she only speaks out when necessary, on issues close to her heart.

"I wouldn't be surprised if she emerged as a spokesperson for better teacher preparation, for the importance of educators understanding how to teach children how to read," said Louisa Cook Moats, who's directing a reading study in the District of Columbia schools.

Her husband agrees with this sentiment. "I care so much about teachers," the president said in his first State of the Union address, "I married one."

Laura and George W. Bush married in 1977 after a three-month courtship. Laura, raised a Democrat, wasn't intimidated in joining the Republican clan, headed by Barbara and George Bush.  

Smoothing out
the 'rough edges'

Laura and George W. Bush married after a three-month courtship in 1977 when both were 31. "I saw an elegant beautiful woman who turned out not only to be elegant and beautiful, but very smart and willing to put up with my rough edges, and I must confess has smoothed them off over time," George W. said of Laura while he was governor of Texas.

Soon after the marriage, George W. Bush began his first political campaign for Congress, which he lost. Laura, raised a Democrat, was now forever tied to a Republican dynasty with her new husband, the grandson of a senator and the son of an ambassador who would soon become vice president, then president of the United States.

While she agreed to take on the role of political wife, she made her husband promise that she would never have to give a speech -- a promise long since broken.

But when pressed, Bush has voiced her political opinions on controversial issues such as the death penalty or abortion, even when her views differ from her husband's. Asked by NBC's "Today" show about the high court's Roe v. Wade decision, she said, "I don't think it should be overturned."

Generally, Bush says she does not impose many of her political opinions on her husband, or "Bushie," as she sometimes calls him. She does, however, seem to have a stabilizing effect on his private life. Many credit her with being an influence on George W.'s well-publicized decision to quit drinking in 1986.

"She is the steel in his back. She is a civilizing influence on him. I think she built him, in many ways, into the person he is today," says People magazine reporter Jane Simms Podesta.

At 17, Laura Bush was involved in a tragic car accident in which a high school friend was killed.  

Tragedy in teen years

Laura was born in Midland, Texas, in 1946 to Harold and Jenna Welch. Her father was a successful real estate developer, while her mother kept the books. Harold Welch died in 1995.

As an only child, Laura found comfort and security in a group of girlfriends. "She is my closest friend," said Regan Gammon of Laura. "We would listen to 45 records all the time. We loved to dance around in our socks. I mean, just like in, you know, the movies."

Laura went to school with her future husband for a short time when they were children in Midland, where he spent most of his formative years.

Her late adolescent years were marred by a tragedy that was not highly publicized until her husband's presidential run. When she was 17, Laura accidentally drove through a stop sign and hit a car driven by a high school friend. He was killed. No charges were filed in the accident.

After graduating from Southern Methodist University with a bachelor's degree in education in 1968, she taught in public schools in Dallas, Houston and Austin, Texas. She also earned a master's degree in library science from the University of Texas at Austin in 1973.

In June 1977, Laura and George were introduced at a dinner thrown by mutual friends in Midland. Bush had moved back to Midland to enter the oil business after college. Laura was working as a librarian and teacher in Austin.

"It was a small wedding, just about 75 people," Laura told CNN. "It was in the church I'd been baptized in as a baby. So it was really a wonderful way to start a new marriage."

Keeping a sense of humor and her privacy

Laura's father-in-law had already served as head of the Republican National Committee and the CIA, but she was not intimidated by her husband's large and well-known family.

She demanded that her personal life and the lives of her family remain private.

"If there is pressure, she's adjusted well," said first lady historian Myra Gutin. "Barbara Bush says that Laura is unflappable, and she's unflappable in a family that is not known for its calm."

Pregnancy did not come easy for Laura. The couple had almost finished a series of interviews that would allow them to be considered as adoptive parents when Laura became pregnant.

In 1981, five weeks before she was to deliver her new twin daughters, Laura developed the life-threatening condition toxemia.

By emergency Caesarean section, she gave birth to fraternal twins, who were named Barbara and Jenna after their grandmothers.

"I was in the operating room," George W. said about the birth of his daughters. "I'm an emotional person. I got weepy, and then I realized our life had changed forever, in a positive way."

The Texas press generally respected the Bushes' efforts to shield their daughters from the spotlight.

While Barbara attends Yale, following the path of her father, grandfather and great-grandfather, Jenna goes to the University of Texas at Austin.

In her private life, the first lady is a woman with a sense of humor. She said she watches the popular parodies of her husband on NBC's "Saturday Night Live."

"She has to be laughing, but I do think they take the criticism to heart," said People magazine's Podesta. "In fact, she's joked with friends she'll be all right as long as John Goodman doesn't play her on 'Saturday Night Live.'

"Out of the public eye, she's a very relaxed, casual person. They both like to run around in jeans, have a barbecue. She likes margaritas."


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