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First Lady Shows Outspoken Side

She's not the shy librarian that some might think she is. Normally reserved first lady Laura Bush (search) showed a new outspoken side on her trip to the Middle East.

In five days, she took a stand on another nation's election dispute, walked into the heart of one of the world's most heated conflicts and contradicted the White House (search).

Mrs. Bush's trip was designed to promote freedom, education and the role of women, along with America's image in a part of the world where animosity is running high. But she said the overriding message she took home was that people want the United States (search) to get involved in the peace process.

"I can't reiterate this enough — they want the United States to be involved," she said at a refueling stop in Ireland (search) on the way to Washington.

Mrs. Bush said the people she met told her there was a new chance for peace under Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. President Bush will meet with Abbas on Thursday at the White House.

"They want the United States to push, actually, to make sure there is a withdrawal from the Gaza this summer, but also that the roadmap is followed," she said. "We need to seize this opportunity to move as quickly as we can possibly move to get this peace."

Her journey to Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories was the latest example of Mrs. Bush's willingness to be a more vocal figure in her husband's administration.

Once content simply to defer to the president, she recently stole the show with a comedy routine that roasted her husband before the Washington press corps and now has taken two solo trips to dangerous parts of the world.

"No first lady has changed in office as obviously and as measuredly as Laura Bush," said Barbara Kellerman, author of "All the President's Kin." "She really is turning right before our eyes into the kind of first lady that we did not anticipate."

There had been some occasional glimpses of Mrs. Bush's willingness to fairly firmly, if gently, speak her mind in her president's first term. Within days of him taking office, she said she did not think the Roe v. Wade abortion-rights ruling should be undone.

She later let it be known she didn't care for Bush's "dead or alive" ultimatum to Osama bin Laden. And she dropped hints that she might disagree with her husband's opposition to gay marriage, saying she has an open mind about whether the country needs a constitutional amendment banning it.

On her Middle East trip, Mrs. Bush displayed her independent side as soon as her plane got off the ground. She said her husband should have been told about an airplane scare that led to the evacuation of the White House and Capitol, and she said a Newsweek magazine article should not be solely blamed for deadly protests overseas. Both positions contradicted the White House.

Mrs. Bush's popularity is nearly double her husband's in the United States, showing that Americans see the Mrs. as separate from the man. But some in the Middle East showed they consider her fair game to criticize for the policies of her husband.

She irritated some opposition groups in Egypt when she applauded President Hosni Mubarak for a constitutional referendum that would allow multiparty presidential elections for the first time this fall. They say the process is window dressing designed to keep Mubarak's ruling party in power.

As she flew home, Mrs. Bush stood by her remarks that democracy is a slow process. She denied that she was sending the impression to nations struggling to achieve democracy that it's OK to drag their feet.

"To act like you can just go from here to there overnight is naive, for one thing. And especially I don't want Americans trying to tell people how you're going to go from here to here in no time," she said, gesturing a great distance with her hands. "Because we know that that's not easy and we know that it's — in many cases — not even possible."

Paul Costello, who worked in the White House press shop for Rosalynn Carter, said it's unusual to have a first lady comment on another nation's election two days before voters go to the polls.

"In Egypt, Laura Bush ventured into territory that would have been unthinkable for her two or three years ago," he said. "Definitely, this was not your first-term Laura Bush."