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The Laura Bush Effect, HIV & Africa

In times past, we've written about "The Bono Effect" – how megarock star Bono launched the DATA organization a few years back and then toured America, motivating Bono-loving evangelicals (and others) to jump into the global fight against crushing debt, HIV/AIDS, global poverty, and on behalf of fairer global trade with Africa.

Initially, I'll confess I had heavy skepticism about "the Bono effect" until it was staring at me across the table inside a Wheaton restaurant in 2005. I was having lunch with an local evangelical leader whose life was transformed by his personal activism against HIV in Africa. He dated that new commitment to Bono's high-profile visit to Wheaton College. Who knew?

Now for the update:

We need to take a look at "The Laura Bush effect" and how it's having influence on US policy, the American public, and our profile overseas. It's a no-brainer that Mrs. Bush is likely to retain her high approval ratings in opinion polls for years to come.

Recent opinion polls show that her ratings are about twice that of President Bush (unless, of course, you are polling Albanians). MSNBC's Chris Matthews explored the Laura Bush model in a recent program.

This week, First Lady Laura Bush will be in the headlines, especially in the foreign press, as she makes her third trip to Africa.

She's visiting the region the experts call SSA, or sub-Saharan Africa. She and daughter Jenna are stopping in Dakar, Senegal; Maputo, Mozambique; Lusaka, Zambia; and Bamako, Mali. The trip ends on Friday.

The focus is on HIV/AIDS through PEPFAR, anti-malaria efforts through the President's Malaria Intiative, and the Millennium Challenge campaign to reduce poverty.

If you're not overly familiar with these programs, welcome to the club. The amount of news media attention around these programs can be measured by an eye-dropper.

But the reality on the ground is that real money is saving real lives in some of the most desperate parts of Africa.

During my last trip to Rwanda, I visited a remote medical clinic on the shores of the stunningly beautiful Lake Kivu. During my previous visit to that same clinic more than one year earlier, there was a building, chronically ill patients, trained medical staff, but no ARV drugs, and precious little equipment.

The clinic operated on hope and prayer.

By the time I made my second visit, the situation had changed largely due to PEPFAR, faith-based organizations, and cooperative government leaders in Africa.

This regional success story of how faith-based groups partner with the Bush administration inside Africa has been spun beyond recognition. The programs are not perfect by any means. There are lots of frustrations on both sides, insiders tell me, but people living with HIV actually do take their meds and care for their kids.

So back to square one: What is the essence of "The Laura Bush Effect"?

Let me suggest three elements:

1. "Presidential Dog Whisperer." My three kids love that dude, Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer. Could it be that Mrs. Bush is taking her cues from Cesar? That calm assertive stance works wonders even at the White House. Mrs. Bush's use of "soft power" on a focused agenda is impressive.

2. The Power of a Passionate Mom. There is a model that is emerging of an alpha couple who rule a nation state and govern its mood and culture by example. (JKF and Jackie were one manifestation of what I'm talking about.) This model seems particularly evident in the 2008 presidential election cycle, in which the candidates' spouses have the ability to move public opinion toward or away from a candidate.

Mrs. Bush has sharpened her public profile in recent months and the public likes what it is seeing. This trip may establish her credibility beyond 2008 as a passionate activist with a global focus.

3. First Lady as Educator in Chief. Education seems to be at the core of Mrs. Bush's competence as a leader. So not only does the public witness her engagement with educational issues, they also see a person who expresses her values.

En route to Senegal, a pool reporter shared this information about Mrs. Bush as she spoke to the news media aboard their 757 aircraft:


Highlights of the first lady's talk, which lasted just under 10 minutes, standing in the aisle, speaking with reporters seated on either side toward the rear of the aircraft: (see White House transcript but these are taped remarks):

"I think we're going to have a very interesting trip. It's going to be a difficult trip, just because it's so much travel. We're going, obviously, from the west coast to the east coast and back to the west coast of Africa before we come home. And we're busy in every stop, with a lot of different programs that we want to see that both address AIDS, malaria, clean water, education. And so those will be the four focuses of this – of the trip.

"I hope you have on your comfortable shoes,'' she said. "We'll work hard for the week.''

She said the purpose of her visit is to "let the American people know about what they're doing, through their taxpayers' money, to try to make a big difference in Africa, both in eradicating malaria, trying to reach and treat as many people as possible and avert as much infection as possible with HIV/AIDS.'' This includes a visit to a PlayPump in Zambia, a water-pump driven by children's playground equipment – part of a project that the first lady had announced last year in conjunction with the Case Foundation, helping to pay for these pumps.

"It lets girls and boys go to school, because they're not having to spend all day walking to a water well a long way away and carrying water, sometimes contaminated water, back to their villages,'' she noted, calling this "a really fun part of the trip, to see these merry-go-rounds.''

What's the most challenging part of the trip?

"The most challenging part, really, is going to be this travel, I mean, the long distances for us to have to fly between places, and then to try to do as many things as we can possibly do in every stop... The schedule is filled, no down time, except for when we're on the plane.''

Asked about her confidence in the Senate approving the first year of the new series of global AIDS funding – now that the House has approved the first stage of the new $30 billion commitment the president is seeking:

"Yes... I think that there is large bipartisan support for this, and that people on both sides of the aisle see it as beneficial, obviously, for the people in Africa, and the other countries – Asia, Vietnam and Haiti that are also targeted with AIDS with PEPFAR funds.

"I think the Congress will support this for those two reasons – first that it's an obligation, many people see it as a moral obligation for the United States because we are affluent... also as being beneficial for our country and letting people around the world know what Americans are really like.''

This is her third trip to Africa.

"This is an important piece of American foreign policy, frankly, the way we reach out to countries all over the world. Not just Africa but everywhere in the world we have very active programs going on in Central and South America, as well, and in Asia, as well.

"I think they represent not only the generosity of the American people, but also the efficiency and the accountability piece of the American government, as well, ways for us to be able to make sure our tax money is used in a way that helps the most people, that has the furthest reach, that's the most effective.''

At the White House summit on Malaria, she said, the U.N., UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, USAID and the World Bank had all come together, she noted. The Millenium Challenge Corporation has worked with governments, too – infrastructure, roads, water, schools.

The African governments involved are working to "try to be the most effective, to try to stretch the money the furthest so that the most people get help,'' she said. "That's also an important piece – and another reason that I think the Congress will support this funding, because they know that we're trying to be as efficient and effective as we possibly can with this funding.''

Tomorrow, Mrs. Bush arrives in Zambia. CT correspondent Isaac Phiri will be filing a report later in the week about her time there. It's a hot zone in the war against HIV, malaria, and chronic poverty.

Watch this space for Isaac's dispatch from Lusaka.

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