MOSCOW – Laura Bush (search) lamented the hours each day that the average American child watches television, urging U.S. parents to turn off the tube and pick up a book with their kids.
Mrs. Bush spoke Tuesday from thousands of miles away, before a roundtable of fellow first ladies in the presidential residence in the Kremlin (search). The former teacher and librarian arrived here earlier in the day to attend a book festival, starting Wednesday, that is sponsored by fellow bookworm Lyudmila Putin (search), wife of the Russian president.
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 richer vocabulary but makes the child feel important to their parent. In the process, she rebuked American's TV-obsessed culture.
"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."
The meeting took place in the residence's grand but intimate 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.
In the evening, Mrs. Putin was hosting a kickoff dinner at the Kremlin's Grand Palace.
The book festival is Mrs. Putin's first. It is modeled on those hosted by Mrs. Bush the last two years in Washington, including one that Mrs. Putin attended last year.
With the Russian festival's theme being children's literature, Mrs. Bush talked at the meeting about several American classic children's books 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 also praised the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote "Little House on the Prairie," for her characterization of the American pioneer spirit.
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 Mrs. Bush is fostering with her book introductions 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.
The role of emissary between America and the world also was Mrs. Bush's — and not unwillingly — throughout her busy Monday in Paris, where she presided over ceremonies marking the U.S. re-entry into UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and visited French President Jacques Chirac.
All the while, she was turned out in stylish but simple skirt suits by American designer Carolina Herrera, a tan herringbone by day and teal velvet at night, in which she seemed to shed pretrip nerves about parading before the fashionable French.
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 to Paris and Moscow and heads back to Washington.