She has been called the perfect wife for her devotion to George W. Bush and the Comforter in Chief for her calming demeanor after 9/11. But it would be a mistake to think of Laura Bush as a latter-day Mamie Eisenhower, who once said, "Ike runs the country; I turn the pork chops." The First Lady has views of her own, and just before jetting off to Florida with the President last week, she sat down in her East Wing office to speak with TIME's Matthew Cooper about a wide range of topics, including gay marriage, stem-cell research and how she deals with criticism of her husband.
TIME Since we're going to hear from the President in New York City about his plans for a second term, I want to get your take on what you want to do.
LAURA BUSH Well, I'm very interested in intervention programs for students who haven't learned to read by the time they get to middle school or high school or have such a low reading level that they're academically unsuccessful. The amazing thing about it is, because they have a larger vocabulary, because they've lived longer, they can be taught to read or move up several grade levels pretty quickly.
TIME And are you still hoping to get over to Afghanistan?
BUSH Absolutely. Yes, I'd love to meet women in Afghanistan--a lot of them.
TIME You've done a lot on heart disease.
BUSH Yes, and I'll continue to do women's health issues--including lifestyle changes, because women make so many lifestyle choices for their families. If they change their own behavior, they really can help their families as well.
TIME As an ex-smoker, have you been able to keep your girls from becoming smokers?
BUSH I'm not so sure about that.
TIME Are you still tempted?
BUSH Sure, of course. It's very difficult to quit.
TIME Any particular times?
BUSH And especially if you're under a lot of stress. I'm not saying that I am. [Laughter.]
TIME Critics throw out so many charges against the President. Is there any one that you found the most unfair?
BUSH I think they're all very unfair. [Laughter.] I really do.
TIME Do you think these swiftboat ads are unfair to John Kerry?
BUSH Do I think they're unfair? Not really. There have been millions of terrible ads against my husband.
TIME I wanted to ask you about stem-cell research because you brought it up the other day. Your greatest objection is that the other side is raising false hope. But your husband is running as the optimist. Isn't optimism good?
BUSH Sure, but not to say cures are at our fingertips, because they're not with stem cells. I know what it's like to have a parent suffer from Alzheimer's. And to give people the idea that there is going to be a cure next year for Alzheimer's--or for anything else--is just not right.
TIME We've all known people who have had difficulties having a child. Any thoughts about IVF treatments, which, as you know, wind up often discarding a fair number of embryos?
BUSH Whether or not people should be able to donate their--TIME Yes.
BUSH Sure, I think that sounds all right with me.