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Laura Bush Mending Fences Overseas

Laura Bush brings to ceremonies marking America's rejoining of the United Nations' main cultural organization some lofty White House hopes: that the re-entry will help offset criticism of President Bush's foreign policies in Iraq and elsewhere as go-it-alone affairs.

The first lady, on a five-day journey through Paris and Moscow, delivers the keynote address Monday to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, before watching the U.S. flag hoisted alongside the group's other member states.

On a whirlwind day in France's capital, Bush had a 40-minute relations-mending social visit with French President Jacques Chirac at the Elysee Palace. Chirac, preceded by greeters in white tie, red waistcoats and tails in the palace courtyard, met Bush at her limousine with a kiss on the hand — and sent her off by repeating the gentlemanly flourish. Inside, the pair exchanged pleasantries before television cameras in an ornate anteroom of Chirac's office.

"The president has sent his most important emissary," U.S. Ambassador Howard Leach told Chirac.

Later, there was also lunch with UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsura and a celebration at Leach's residence, where Bush is staying.

Bush was delivering the message that U.S. membership in UNESCO, after an absence since 1984 from a group labeled corrupt and anti-Western, will be good for all, with America contributing a wealth of expertise.

In joining international collaborations, the United States can offset some criticism of unilateralism in other areas of Bush foreign policy, most notably on Iraq.

The exchanges also will be good for spreading the word among an increasingly skeptical world that America isn't all bad, Bush told reporters traveling with her from Washington on Sunday.

"We want to work with all these countries on these goals, with all the member countries of UNESCO, to achieve the goals that they've set out," she said. "With people working together, I think we have the chance of letting people around the world know what we're really like."

Even as she takes on the diplomat's role, the former teacher and librarian brings long-held personal passions to her new role.

"The goals of UNESCO are certainly goals and values and issues that I've worked on my whole life," Bush said.

Indeed, in February, she signed on to be UNESCO's honorary ambassador for the U.N. Decade of Literacy, an effort that aims to help 860 million adults and 113 million children.

Bush's entourage on her third solo trip abroad as first lady blends the personal and the official as well.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, chosen to sing the U.S. national anthem at the ceremonies, is a fellow native of Midland, Texas. Her mother attends Sunday school with Bush's mother.

Also in the 17-member official delegation are some longtime Texas friends: Karen Hughes, a longtime key adviser to the president, and Adair Margo, an art dealer from El Paso who heads the White House committee on the arts and humanities.

Formed 1945 to promote international exchanges, UNESCO helps modernize education systems, establish standards on bioethics, and preserve cultural and natural treasures through its World Heritage List.

By Jennifer Loven