First Lady 'Books' Russia Trip

The Early Show, First Lady Laura Bush
CBS/The Early Show
If you're around The National Mall in Washington, D.C., this Saturday, Oct. 4, you may want to stop by the third annual National Book Festival, which will be hosted by first lady Laura Bush.

But on Wednesday, Oct. 1, Mrs. Bush was in Moscow taking part in Russian version of the festival. She spoke with The Early Show co-anchor Rene Syler from Moscow.

Mrs. Bush, who has made literacy her White House mission, was in Russia to improve some ties that were weakened over the last couple of months with the war in Iraq.

The former teacher and librarian took part in the first national book festival sponsored by a fellow bookworm, Russian first lady Lyudmila Putin.

It is modeled on those hosted by Mrs. Bush for the last two years in Washington, including one that Mrs. Putin attended.

"She [Putin] came last year to the book festival in Washington and that's where she got the idea of the book festival that I'm here for," Mrs. Bush explained. "I brought three American authors with me, very funny and scary writers. R.L. Stine who writes the 'Goosebumps' books and Marc Brown who does the 'Arthur' books and Peter Lerangis, who wrote some of the Baby-Sitters Club books. I watched this morning as they really entertained Russian children."

In her role as emissary, Mrs. Bush also stopped in Paris where she presided over ceremonies marking the U.S. re-entry into UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. But it was her visit with French President Jacques Chirac that drew headlines.

On the front page of many U.S. newspapers was a picture of the French president kissing Mrs. Bush's hand.

"It was just French hospitality and that's what I thought at the time," the first lady says. "He was actually very warm and he was very friendly. I really expected that because we had seen him just the week before at the United Nations General Assembly in New York and he had a very good meeting with President Bush."

President Chirac and President Bush have not seen eye-to-eye on the war in Iraq, but Mrs. Bush says, "I had actually run into him [Chirac] in the halls of the United Nations when I was there so I knew he would be very friendly. He said, and I agree, 'Let's let-bygones be bygones.'"

She says she believes the nations of the world "should all agree to work together to make sure Iraq has the opportunity to build a democracy. And that's what the U.N. Resolution is about.

"That's what my husband is working toward," she adds, "and we really need to help Iraq to give them a chance to become a secure and stable democracy. That's what the people of Iraq want. And I think that's really what the whole world wants."

In both Russia and France, the first lady says, she has been most welcomed. She says she was particularly pleased with the visit to Moscow, where "we have a really good friendship with both President Putin and Madam Putin."

Melanne Verveer, chief of staff to Hillary Rodham Clinton when she was first lady, said Mrs. Bush's efforts with Mrs. Putin should not be underestimated. Important strategic partnerships between nations often are built on personal friendships, and cultural exchanges such as the one Mrs. Bush is fostering, using books to help the two peoples understand each other, Verveer said.

"To have Mrs. Bush go to Russia, I think is very important," said Verveer, now chairwoman of the Vital Voices global women's group.

With the Russian festival's theme being children's literature, Mrs. Bush spoke about American classics that she said showcase the values of "living a good life."

For instance, Louisa Mae Alcott's "Little Women" - a personal childhood favorite of the first lady's - is a "story of family love," she says

She also praised the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote "Little House on the Prairie," for her characterization of the American pioneer spirit.

Speaking before a roundtable of fellow first ladies in the presidential residence in the Kremlin Tuesday, Mrs. Bush lamented the hours each day that the average American child watches television, urging parents to turn off the tube and pick up a book with their children.

"We're always, everywhere - librarians, teachers,- are working together to inform parents about turning the TV off," she said. "American children, I'm afraid, are addicted to television."

Addressing the group, Mrs. Bush talked about her main mission as first lady, trying to spread the word that reading to children, starting when they are babies, not only helps develop a richer vocabulary but makes the child feel important.

The meeting took place in the residence's presidential library, a circular room with intricate parquet floors, a balcony, and lined with glass-doored bookshelves filled with priceless treasures. Also attending were Russian librarians and scientific experts, and the first ladies of Armenia and Bulgaria.

Asked about her goals, Mrs. Bush tells Syler, "What I would like is for parents to turn the television off for some time every afternoon and evening and spend that time with their arm around their child, reading with them or playing games with them or playing outside with them. Really monitor how much time your children watch TV. Television watching is very passive and we want children to have something more active in their lives."

On Wednesday evening, Mrs. Bush is due at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater for a performance of the ballet "Don Quixote."

Also while in Moscow, Mrs. Bush will see another fellow first lady who has become a friend - Cherie Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair - who is also attending the festival. The two are having coffee Thursday.

After their meeting, Mrs. Bush wraps up her five-day trip and heads back to Washington.

The third annual National Book Festival, organized and sponsored by the Library of Congress and hosted by Mrs. Bush, will be held on Saturday, Oct. 4, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., between 7th and 14th streets from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (rain or shine).

It features more than 80 award-winning authors, illustrators, poets and storytellers.