Can Laura save the Bush legacy?

Amid growing curiosity in political circles, Washington seems to be witnessing a White House remake of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie Saving Private Ryan. But this time around, the star is not Tom Hanks but first lady Laura Bush. The project’s working title: Saving President Bush.

The size of Mrs Bush’s task makes the Normandy landings look easy and she could yet be driven into the sea. With his approval ratings hovering around record lows, Bush again showed he is his own worst enemy, vetoing a children’s health insurance bill that both parties supported. He claimed the plan amounted to “socialised medicine”.

Mrs Bush must have winced. The former teacher and school librarian is a champion of children’s rights, including cognitive development, literacy, health, and lifelong learning programmes. She leads the Helping America’s Youth initiative and is honorary ambassador for the UN’s Literacy Decade project.

The setback was not unfamiliar. Since moving to Washington in 2001,the much underestimated Mrs Bush has regularly filled other yawning gaps in her husband’s CV, espousing women’s empowerment and health projects in Afghanistan and the Muslim world and making an extensive tour of sub-Saharan Africa this summer.

But in recent months, Mrs Bush’s interventions have taken on a more significant aspect. Her outspoken support for the pro-democracy movement in Burma, her encouragement of official US contacts with Tibet’s exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, and her four-country Middle East tour are raising her into the political premier league, analysts say.

The shift may be part of a deliberate strategy. With Bush reportedly increasingly interested in securing his legacy, the question for the White House is whether his quiet-spoken, determined wife can help rescue him from the black hole of Iraq by changing the image of his presidency in its final 15 months and finally putting some runs on the board.

Mrs Bush’s UN lobbying, her personal contacts with the Burmese opposition, and newspaper op-ed articles and speeches appear to have been effective in rallying US political and public opinion against the junta. It helped that she had taken up the cause of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi long before the current troubles began.

In similar vein, Mrs Bush’s ongoing trip to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and the UAE, while primarily focused on women’s health and educational issues, comes at a potentially decisive moment for her husband’s attempts to fashion a lasting Israel-Palestine peace. Bush’s hopes of a statesman’s place in history, and the growing, ameliorative influence of his wife, also suggest the prospect of a sneak attack on Iran may be receding.

The flip side of Bush’s bid to leave office with a record of achievement rather than a roll-call of disasters became clearer at his press conference this week. On a range of domestic issues — the federal budget, homeland security, education, healthcare, housing and free trade — he challenged the Democrat-controlled Congress to an open fight.

This epic battle is now set to run and run through to next year’s elections. The Nov. 4 vote will offer a verdict on both Bush’s political legacy at home and his dealings with the world. On that particular D-Day, whatever the first lady says or does, he will be on his own. — The Guardian