Laura takes centre stage as George struggles

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The Independent US

Laura Bush wrote herself into the history books on Monday, becoming the first wife of a sitting US president to ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange. That, however, was not her only engagement in Manhattan this week as her husband joins heads of government at the United Nations.

A packed agenda for the First Lady also included a meeting at the UN last night with non-governmental organisations to discuss the situation in Burma, where the regime still has the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, as well as a scheduled appearance today at the annual Global Initiative anti-poverty conference organised by the former president Bill Clinton.

Mrs Bush will talk about US efforts to bring clean water to communities in sub-Saharan Africa. On Monday night, she took centre stage at a conference on spreading literacy to Third World countries with 60 other first ladies from around the world at the New York Public Library.

However, it was the meeting on Burma that prompted some to describe this week as the "coming out" of Mrs Bush on the foreign affairs scene. US officials are hoping that her intervention will put pressure on the Burmese regime to release Ms Suu Kyi.

That Mrs Bush is taking a higher profile now is not surprising. Her popularity ratings are often double that of her husband's, a significant asset as Republicans brace for what could be disappointing mid-term elections in November.

"If you look at the history of first ladies, often when the president is having difficulties, the first ladies have been sent out to campaign," said Myra Gutin, a professor at Rider University in New Jersey. "It does put a better spin on the administration."