Never mind Hillary - it's 'Laura for president' now

I and my readers had such fun with my provocative column suggesting a Nobel peace prize for President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair that I'm ready to try another: Laura Bush for president in 2008.

The Bush and Blair column drew as much reader reaction as any I can remember in many years of column writing.

At one end of the spectrum, Bush supporters thought it was a nifty idea. I never heard the broadcast, but many readers told me that Sean Hannity commented on the "idea from this feller in Salt Lake City" and said "the country needs more thinking like this."

By contrast, Bush critics thought it was a terrible idea. One of my perennial correspondents, who has routinely suggested that Bush is motivated by Satanic influences, said he was "truly sickened by the proposal." Others suggested I resign from clubs I don't even belong to.

Now to Laura. Her public opinion ratings are currently higher than the president's. Her performance at the Gridiron dinner in Washington proved she has even more comedic flair than her husband. And on her trip to the Middle East last week, she showed she has a mind of her own and can sometimes, with civility, take positions different from Mr. Bush.

Still not persuaded? Think the wife of a former president shouldn't, or couldn't, take a crack at running for the White House? Well Hillary Clinton is the wife of a former president and a lot of people think she's a front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2008. What a contest that would be: Laura and Hillary. Choose one for first woman president. What a campaign Karl Rove would make.

Of course, Laura would have to elbow out Bill Frist, John McCain, and maybe even brother-in-law Jeb Bush, as well as a string of other aspiring males to get the Republican nomination. But I suspect that beneath that poised and charming exterior are nerves of steel and a canny political sense on issues of great import.

She certainly displayed cool nerve in the midst of rambunctious demonstrating crowds during her five-day Middle East visit. She also shrewdly pitched the president's agenda of freedom and democracy to the audience that could perhaps do more than any other to further that agenda throughout the Arab lands.

That audience, of course, is the women of the region. In male-dominated societies, they have been traditionally disenfranchised and relegated to inferior status, their educational potential and influence for constructive change untapped and dismissed. But if encouraged and unleashed, what a force they could be.

The winds of change are rippling across the Arab lands - evident in voter turnouts in liberated Iraq, pro-democracy demonstrations that have sent Syrian troops out of Lebanon, and the burgeoning of a substantial opposition movement in Egypt. Of necessity, and not always from conviction, political concessions are being made by kings, princes, and traditional rulers.

Islamist parties, which have long curried favor with the population by providing social services, are poised to become part of the opposition. Hamas and Hizbullah, for example, are debating whether to renounce violence and become mainstream political organizations.

Arab women, if empowered, could be a significant factor in shifting their menfolk away from terror and bloodshed and into orthodox politics. That's why it was cheering to see Mrs. Bush sit down with Hanan Ashrawi and other prominent Palestinian women last week to encourage the advancement of women's rights.

Peace and stability will be better served when there are more women legislators and judges and government officials in positions of responsibility in the Islamic world. Some progress is being made, as in Afghanistan.

But throughout Arab nations, 50 percent of women are still illiterate. A recent report prepared for the United Nations by Arab intellectuals found that "despite laudable efforts to promote the status of women, success remains limited." Greater progress, it concluded, is required in women's political participation, legal status, marital rights, and their integration into development.

Laura for president. Maybe that would help.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of Deseret Morning News.

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