First lady makes Capitol Hill debut

Language skills of young stressed in appearance before Senate committee

January 25, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Secret Service agents stood guard under crystal chandeliers, tourists snapped pictures and senators stayed on their very best behavior as Laura Bush made her Capitol Hill debut yesterday - a performance that fit her image as a first lady who is poised and prepared, but only reluctantly political.

Appearing in the ornate hearing room of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Bush stressed the importance of language and pre-reading skills among infants and toddlers.

Going solo in a political world in which she has largely deferred to her husband, Bush avoided specific talk of legislation or dollar figures or partisan agendas and instead spoke from her personal experience as a librarian and teacher in Texas.

"I realized that, for many children, being left behind did not begin in elementary school," Bush said, recalling her work. "It began in the years between diapers and the first backpacks."

The first lady called for an awareness campaign about early education needs, urged better pay for teachers and called for a greater emphasis on language and literacy development in programs that cater to preschoolers.

The day provided an uncommon tableau. As Bush entered the hearing room in a bright blue suit and pearls, New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton rose to meet her, softly delivering greetings in the first lady's ear.

Bush, who defines herself as someone without political aspirations, occasionally exchanged glances with Clinton as the former first lady watched from her leather-backed chair on the committee.

Neither woman made any attempt to address that political drama. But a photographer eager to capture that bit of theater whispered "Thank you" after Clinton got close enough to Bush to appear in the same shot.

It was a collegial day. Democrats held their tongues about the Bush administration's funding for disadvantaged students and children with special needs. President Bush is expected to propose an additional $2 billion for those programs - far short of what the Clinton administration advocated and what Democrats are likely to endorse.

Bush, who held a two-day summit on early childhood learning last summer, glided between anecdotes about motherhood and expert research.

"Before they entered kindergarten, they knew that the letters and words in books talked to you just like people do," she said of her twin daughters.

Later, she added, "The infant brain actually seeks out and acquires a tremendous amount of information about language in the first year of life."

The senators embraced her, praising her for drawing attention to the educational, social and emotional needs of preschool children.

"In public life, the most important word is credibility," Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican, told Bush. "And you bring that."

Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the panel, praised her "intuitive understanding" of children's needs.

Still, the event was not the policy extravaganza that marked the Capitol Hill debut of Bush's predecessor, Clinton.

In 1993, the former first lady talked health-care reform before five congressional panels over three days, participating in marathon question-and-answer sessions, prompting standing ovations and generating talk about her presidential potential.

By contrast, Bush spoke for a little more than an hour, taking questions from two senators before leaving.

This actually was the second "debut" of the first lady, who was supposed to address the same Senate panel Sept. 11.

That morning, Bush appeared before the cameras looking pale with shock, urging the nation to pray for the rescue workers climbing into the World Trade Center towers at that moment. Minutes later, she was whisked to a secure location.

In that crisis, Bush introduced herself to the country in a more intimate way, emerging as a national nurturer who visited attack victims and urged parents to comfort their children.

"It is a very moving occasion, to have the first lady here, because of the poignant memories," Kennedy said. "What we remember most is the courage and inspiration of the first lady at that difficult time."

This second visit began on a much sweeter note. Bush started the morning yesterday in Kennedy's office, petting the senator's Portuguese water dog, Splash, before Clinton and others arrived to welcome her to the Senate.

The first lady's testimony, which could prompt legislators to call for greater education funding, comes amid projections of an estimated $106 billion deficit - all while President Bush vows to fight for the biggest defense spending increase since Ronald Reagan's first term.

But yesterday, the senators stayed friendly. Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, thanked Bush for sending him a copy of the Maurice Sendak classic, Where the Wild Things Are, to mark the birth of his daughter, Grace, last September.

Smiling her way, he added: "That's not about Congress."

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