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For Immediate Release
Office of the First Lady
September 18, 2006

Interview of Mrs. Bush by Meredith Viera, NBC "Today" Show
NBC Studios
Rockefeller Center
New York, New York

7:10 A.M. EDT

Q First Lady Laura Bush is in New York to focus on global issues, including health, literacy, and poverty.

Mrs. Bush, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

MRS. BUSH: Thank you very much.

Q Get off your feet for a few minutes.

MRS. BUSH: That's right, it's nice to sit down for a second.

Q How do you like the new digs?

MRS. BUSH: I like it a lot. Very pretty. I like the way you matched the colors with my suit.

Q To your suit. You look lovely. High definition, so Democrats and Republicans are equal here --

MRS. BUSH: I don't know if I like that or not. (Laughter.)

Q That's right, it's dangerous for all of us. (Laughter.) I mentioned before that you are here for a international conference on global literacy --

MRS. BUSH: That's right.

Q -- but let me get to that. But you've been traveling all over the world talking about literacy, and all over this country, really, campaigning for Republican candidates. Is there any one issue that most people ask you about, any one issue that stands out as the one most asked?

MRS. BUSH: I think when I campaign, of course, I'm mainly doing events with Republicans, and they say to me, tell the President to stay the course, and those are the sort of things they say. But I know that Americans are very interested in all issues that aren't just here, aren't just our own domestic issues, but also are issues that are worldwide. Many Americans do things to try to alleviate AIDS, for instance, in Africa and around the world. And I get to meet those people that do that.

Q And your number one issue right now, in terms of being here in New York, really is global literacy.

MRS. BUSH: That's right. I'm hosting a conference on global literacy this morning, with UNESCO, which is the U.N. agency that's charged with education, and our own Education Department and State Department. We have about 30 spouses of leaders from around the world coming, as well as around 40 education ministers -- 200 people in all are coming.

Q And these are countries that obviously have real issues with literacy, obviously.

MRS. BUSH: That's right. That's right.

Q And you've promoted it in this country quite a bit, both as a former librarian and a teacher --

MRS. BUSH: Sure.

Q -- and said that literacy is power. Why now focus outward? Why take it out?

MRS. BUSH: Well, UNESCO -- we just rejoined UNESCO. The President announced that we would rejoin UNESCO. We had left UNESCO during the term of President Reagan, and we rejoined three years ago. And UNESCO is charged with having a decade of literacy, of trying to address illiteracy around the world. So they asked me to be the honorary ambassador of that three years ago, at the New York Public Library, which is where we'll be meeting this morning. And this is a way to try to really focus on the countries that have the highest illiteracy rates. About two-thirds of all the illiterate people in the world live in just 34 countries, and of course, those are the countries with the highest poverty rates.

Q And most of them are women, which I find so interesting.

MRS. BUSH: That's right, nearly all of -- well, two-thirds of the whole number of adult illiterates are women.

Q Why do you think that is, Mrs. Bush? And given that, even if you have wonderful proposals, which you do, how do you convince the governments in those countries to enact them?

MRS. BUSH: Well, of course, one reason that women are mainly the number of illiterates is because women have been denied education worldwide. I mean, it's happened everywhere over some amounts of time, and still in many countries women are denied education.

Q So why are the governments going to grant it?

MRS. BUSH: Well, I don't -- I think also it's because women stay at home. Women are the ones who are looking for clean water for their children; they're the ones who are trying to feed their children at home, and working at home. And girls are kept at home, not sent to school.

And there are a number of ways we can address it. The World Food Program has started feeding programs in schools, and we found that parents will send their children, boys and girls, to school in countries where there's a lot of poverty if they know their children will be fed.

I believe, of course, that all parents want the very best for their children, no matter what country they're in around the world.

Q Do you feel that doing this, Mrs. Bush, will have an added benefit, in the sense that our reputation around the world, fairly or unfairly, has been tarnished in recent years -- do you hope that by getting out there with this initiative, that somehow you can resurrect --

MRS. BUSH: Well, that's certainly -- that would be a nice side effect, if that's what happened. But, no, the real purpose of it is to try to make sure governments invest in education for their citizens. And the way -- any ways that UNESCO, as a U.N. agency, or other either private foundations or our government can help, we will.

And our government already does. We have an African Education Initiative, where we're publishing textbooks. Six American universities are matched with six African countries, and they're publishing textbooks in Africa that are traditional stories that African children would want to know, and African teachers would want to teach.

And so there are many ways already that our government is working on it. But today's conference will really be a charge to every nation to invest in their people by investing in education. If people are educated, economies are better. We know that the countries with the highest education rates also have the best economies.

Q So it affects everybody.

I want to focus now for a second on what's going on here. The good news is people love you. Your approval rating is 61 percent. The bad news is that people don't feel quite the same way about your husband. His approval rating is about 42 percent -- which may be why you're out on the campaign trail. You tend to be the face, very often.

MRS. BUSH: Well, I'm on the campaign trail, but he is, too. But you know that --

Q You've raised a tremendous amount of money -- I believe it's $11 million -- for Republican candidates. When you are out there and you meet somebody who's on the fence, isn't sure how they're going to vote at this point, and they ask you about the war in Iraq, what do you say to them?

MRS. BUSH: Well, I say exactly what the President says, that we need to stay the course; that it's really in our interest as Americans to make sure Iraq can build a stable democracy. You've seen lately, in the last few weeks, the Prime Minister of Iraq talking here. They want us to stay there, they want to be able to build a democracy. And if we left now, we would leave a country without the support they need to build a democracy.

I'm optimistic about it. I think they really can build a democracy --

Q And yet, so many people are uneasy --

MRS. BUSH: Of course, people are. No one wants war. The President doesn't want war. No one does.

Q How did the President respond -- he took a pounding in recent days, not from Democrats, but from three key Republican senators who are greatly opposed to his proposal for interrogating and trying those suspected of terrorism. And they, in fact, said that it could undermine -- the President's proposal could undermine our reputation around the world. And beyond that, I just want to quote from Secretary of State -- former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said, "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. To redefine Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions would add to those doubts. Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk." Those are strong words.

MRS. BUSH: Well, they are strong words. And the President has asked the Congress to make sure that all of those articles are specifically -- that they're the ones that make the laws, that they write them so that they're very clear. And that's really important for them to do. And they will come to some sort of consensus, I think, both the President and the three senator and congressmen that you mention. And I think that they will come out with something that's very clear.

Obviously, Americans are not for torture. And neither is the President. But --

Q But the fact they question him, Mrs. Bush, and --

MRS. BUSH: Well, I wouldn't say that they question him --

Q -- his proposal.

MRS. BUSH: -- they're questioning some of the ideas. It's a whole way that both the executive branch and the congressional branch work together for the best for the United States. And that's what is going on.

Q Did it upset or surprise him that these --

MRS. BUSH: No, not really. I mean, he knows these men very well, obviously, all of them. He knows them very well; he knows what their issues are. And he wants the Congress to make a clear definition, clear legal definition so that we can proceed from that definition. Obviously, he thinks it's very important to be able to interrogate in a way that is not demeaning, because it's important for us to know to protect ourselves as a country from terrorist attack. This is not like any other war we've ever fought.

Q You know, if somebody had said to me six years ago that the Bushes and the Clintons are going to be cozy, I would have said, you're crazy. But first I see your father-in-law, the former President Bush, joining forces with Bill Clinton in terms of tsunami and Katrina relief --

MRS. BUSH: That's right.

Q -- and now you're going to be joining forces with Bill Clinton on his initiative this Wednesday -- and at the same time, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Senator, has said some pretty strong things about your husband. I think she referred to his presidency as the "fear factor" presidency. Given your relationship now with Bill Clinton, how do you reconcile those kinds of comments? Because if somebody said that about my husband, I'd want to knock them, you know -- (laughter) -- just get angry.

MRS. BUSH: You know, Presidents and First Ladies are sort of in the same club; we all know what it's like to live in the White House. We know what the criticisms are like from everyone, and especially from the other party. So I understand that part of it.

I'm happy to have this chance to speak at President Clinton's conference that he started, also during this week at the U.N. GA, when so many world leaders are in town. And one thing he asked all of his speakers to do is to come with some sort of commitment to his global fund that he has. And so I'm excited to have --

Q -- put aside the politics --

MRS. BUSH: -- this chance to be able to be there and to talk about a specific public/private partnership that the United States and a United States foundation can join on for -- especially for Africa, but also for other countries where clean water is an issue. It has to do with water.

Q I have to ask you, as a mom of two daughters -- I have one daughter -- your reaction to Madrid banning skinny models at the fashion week. And in fact, that came up in London over the weekend. Do you think that government should get involved in body image --

MRS. BUSH: Well, I don't see our government getting involved --

Q Should it?

MRS. BUSH: -- in skinny models. But our government is involved in obesity and does talk about that a lot -- our Department of Health, certainly -- and all the new studies that show how children are heavier than they were in previous generations, for a lot of reasons we know, from a lot of fast food, a lot of large portions, as well as, of course, so much more time sitting, watching television or on the Internet or playing video games.

Q Exactly, just not moving.

MRS. BUSH: That's right.

Q One last question, Mrs. Bush. We're doing a segment later on, on happiness, finding happiness later on in life. Are you happy? And if so, how do you define it?

MRS. BUSH: I am happy. And you know what I think -- this is my vantage point now, at almost 60 years old -- don't tell anybody (laughter) --

Q I'm 53, you can tell. (Laughter.)

MRS. BUSH: -- if people are happy with what they do, if they find a productive -- way to be productive in society, in whatever way, either the work they do, coming to work every day on the "Today" Show, or coming to -- working wherever, or just working at home in some ways, raising kids, that if you feel like you're productive, if you're a productive member of society, you're also a happy member of society.

Q It is such a pleasure to meet you, finally.

MRS. BUSH: Thanks so much, Meredith.

Q Thank you so much.

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