First Lady Laura Bush gave her first speech to the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday, in what she called “my opportunity to use the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the [Universal] Declaration of Human Rights to talk about the things I’m interested in” —the rights of women in Afghanistan and Burma. Her remarks were thoughtful and occasionally poignant, reflecting her obvious concern for the violence they face and the critical need for girls’ education, an issue “close to my heart.”
“She obviously is a human rights activist,” one member remarked to me afterwards. “Too bad it hasn’t rubbed off on her husband.”
“I am outraged. They’re having a person whose husband has been entirely detrimental to human rights in a way that humiliates the country. It’s a disgrace.”
And there’s the rub.
Some rows of seats remained empty, and I counted only about one hundred members —far smaller than the SRO audiences I’ve seen for, say, Roger Altman, who recently spoke about the economy, or for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Do people not care about human rights in these countries? Or do they care so much, they stayed away?
Beforehand, a few Council members told me they were enraged by the timing of Mrs. Bush’s speech, on this date celebrating the bible of the international human rights movement, which was created under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt.
“Look, there was once a first lady who helped to draft a universal declaration of human rights,” said Carroll Bogert, associate director of Human Rights Watch and a member of the Council. “And maybe the calculation was, why don’t we invite another one to talk about it? But you know, Laura Bush ain’t no Eleanor Roosevelt. What was the Council on Foreign Relations thinking?”
Bogert sent a letter of protest to Council president Richard Haass, but did not get a response from him. She did not attend the speech because she had another date —at the United Nations, which has just awarded Human Rights Watch its prestigious human rights prize. But she would have boycotted it.
She told me she has no argument with Mrs. Bush personally, or even some of her work in the field, like her trips to Afghanistan to advocate for women’s rights. “Probably she has been an advocate,” Bogert said. “And she should be, because things are getting worse for women in Afghanistan right now, so it’s a legitimate concern. And I am grateful to Laura Bush for raising it. But I don’t think that makes her a leader of the human rights movement. I don’t think she’s a serious speaker on this very serious topic. We have extensively documented the ways in which the Bush administration has done significant damage to the leadership of the United States in human rights around the world, and I think that will be remembered as the legacy of the Bush administration and not Laura Bush’s three trips to Afghanistan.”
Attorney Steven Kass, a former Human Rights Watch board member and a longtime active Council member who took a rare pass today, said this was the first time he’d protested a speaker.
“I am outraged,” he said, “because Human Rights Day is an important day, and they’re having a person who has played no role whatsoever in that area, whose husband has been entirely detrimental to human rights in a way that humiliates the country, and has resulted in the deaths of god knows how many people —and she has sat there smilingly vacuous. For the Council on Foreign Relations to have her there as symbol of its commitment to universal human rights is just a mockery, I think it’s a disgrace.”
“Oh phooey,” said Bob DeVecchi, president emeritus of the International Rescue Committee and a longtime Council member who sat up front and listened attentively. “I think we have to be big about things like this.”
The Council has, of course, hosted other, far more controversial speakers, like Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“It's a hallmark of our meetings program that the people who speak at the Council represent a wide range of views,” said Lisa Shields, vice president and director of communications for the Council on Foreign Relations. “While giving them the opportunity to speak, we also give our members a chance to challenge and interact with them. Our having the First Lady or any other speaker here doesn't mean it's an endorsement of their views, It is, however, a recognition that hers is an important voice in the foreign policy debate.”
In her speech, Mrs. Bush noted the horror of mutilation and the victims of rape in Burma —“the youngest was 8, the oldest, 80” —citing individuals, some of whom she has personally met, caught up in turmoil and tyranny. The audience —which included at least one book editor who had spoken with the First Lady about publishing her memoirs —was respectful and polite, with a number of Council members expressing their gratitude for her appearance and her good works.
But no one asked about the human rights policies of her husband’s administrations. No one asked about torture. No one asked about a potential war crimes prosecution. Mrs. Bush was, after all, there to talk about things she was interested in.
One of which seemed at least slightly at odds with the administration’s UN-bashing. “Obviously, I think there is a role for the United Nations,” she said in response to a question. “We all look at the UN and we worry that it’s not effective, and we worry that its message becomes diluted. But it’s a really good vehicle. It’s the only one we’ve got, and I think we need to work with it to make sure it becomes more effective.”
She noted that she will continue her international work through the Freedom Institute, part of the presidential library being built by her husband. But her otherwise gentle manner gave way to a steely resignation when she was asked if she might, like that other first lady —Eleanor Roosevelt, appointed by President Truman as a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations —continue her human rights work in a more formal way.
“Not in the next administration!” Mrs. Bush quipped, to knowing laughter. “I’m going to continue to do what I can, but it will obviously be outside of government.”
A team of rivals only extends so far.
Lynn Sherr is a former ABC News correspondent, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words and Tall Blondes, a book about giraffes. She is also co-editor of Peter Jennings: A Reporter's Life. At ABC’s 20/20 news program, Sherr specialized in women's issues and social change, as well as investigative reports. Her most recent book, a memoir—Outside the Box: My Unscripted Life of Love, Loss and Television News—is just out in paperback.