Tuesday, January 17, 2006

MONROVIA, Liberia — First lady Laura Bush yesterday rejected Democratic claims that Republicans are mired in a “culture of corruption” and said she’d be “glad” to campaign for Republican candidates in the fall.

“It isn’t true,” Mrs. Bush said of the “culture of corruption” charges in an exclusive interview with The Washington Times while here for the inauguration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president of Liberia.

Mrs. Bush offered her star power to Republican candidates after saying she did not know how the Democrats’ accusations will affect the congressional elections in November.

“I’ll be glad to campaign for Republicans who ask me to campaign for them or do fundraisers for them,” the first lady said at the U.S. ambassador’s residence here.

Mrs. Bush made clear that “there’s certainly not a role for any sort of bribery or anything that would be considered corrupt,” but said many lobbyists play vital roles in public policy.

“The whole lobbying aspect of politics is very interesting in the United States,” Mrs. Bush said. “There’s an important aspect to lobbying, as well.

“I mean, what people don’t think of is the American Heart Association or breast cancer research — each of those groups lobby for federal funds, for very, very important and worthwhile causes in our country,” she added. “And so I hope that people realize that there is a role for advocates for different issues.”

Rep. Bob Ney, Ohio Republican, temporarily stepped down Sunday as chairman of the House Administration Committee because of his association with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Democrats are expected to make corruption charges a central theme in their attempt to win congressional seats in the midterm elections.

Mrs. Bush also said she was “disappointed” in Democrats for trying to delay a vote on President Bush’s nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. for the Supreme Court because it would further postpone retirement for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

“I’m disappointed about that,” Mrs. Bush said. “I know Sandra Day O’Connor would like to retire.

“She stayed longer because the president asked her to when he nominated John Roberts for chief justice,” the first lady added. “And I think it just would serve the country better if [Judge Alito] can go ahead and be voted on, up and down, and then assume the job.”

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have delayed a vote on Judge Alito until next week while liberal interest groups work to erode public support for the nominee. Republicans called for a panel vote this week.

Democrats questioned Judge Alito so aggressively last week that his wife, Martha, broke into tears and left the committee room Wednesday for more than an hour. Mrs. Bush, who called Mrs. Alito and urged her to “hang in there,” made it clear yesterday that she disapproved of the rough hearings.

“They’re difficult for family members when they see the people they love attacked,” she said. “I really think when anyone is up for confirmation, whether it’s for justice of the Supreme Court or any other job that requires Senate confirmation, that it’s incumbent upon senators to be respectful.”

The first lady is traveling in Africa with her daughter Barbara, who has a keen interest in the troubled continent. Mrs. Bush pointed out that last year, Barbara “went to South Africa, where she worked at a pediatric hospital, and then she did UNICEF work in Botswana.

“She’s very interested in Africa and she loves it, and really her interest has stimulated mine,” the first lady added. “Barbara has been a big influence on me, influenced my interest in Africa.”

Barbara’s twin sister, Jenna, is not accompanying her mother on this trip.

“Jenna’s teaching school in a charter school, and she loves education,” said Mrs. Bush, a former teacher. “She’s having a great time. She’s interested particularly in the charter school movement and really wanted to work in a charter school.”

The first lady also backed the president’s decision in November to make a more aggressive defense of his Iraq policy. She lauded Iraqis for electing a permanent government last month.

“It’s really important for him to talk to the American people about the war in Iraq and about what the United States’ goals are,” she said, “because I’m not so sure that the press does get the word out on how important the vote was there.”

Since rejoining the Iraq debate in earnest, the president has seen his job approval ratings climb, although he and his wife often say they are unaffected by polls.

“I only really pay attention when they’re really good,” Mrs. Bush joked.

Mrs. Bush also revealed that her IPod listening includes songs by Tina Turner and Dolly Parton. She said her musical tastes are somewhat different from those of her husband.

“He likes country music a little bit more than I do, although I actually really am very fond of country music, as well,” she said. “One of the songs on my IPod that I love is Dolly Parton singing ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ So that’s sort of a combination, country and pop.”

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