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Published: Tuesday, 2/15/2005

No street cred

EVIDENTLY every State of the Union speech must have a jarring, incongruous moment that comes out of nowhere. Last year s was President Bush calling for steroids testing in Major League Baseball not a bad idea but totally out of, well, left field.

This year s came when the President announced that his wife, Laura Bush, would lead a national effort to reduce gang activity in urban America.

The First Lady smiled sweetly, acknowledged the applause of official Washington, and accepted the first great charge of her husband s administration stewardship of a $150 million, three-year program to assist at-risk youth between 8 and 17.

If some thought that Hillary Clinton s assignment to tackle health-care reform during President Clinton s first term was a stretch, the prospect of Laura Bush, the soft-spoken librarian from Crawford, Texas, lecturing Crips and Bloods about the evils of gangs is a Saturday Night Live skit waiting to happen.

Without a doubt, the First Lady radiates empathy and concern for the disadvantaged. Among all of her husband s advisers, she is the one whom we most easily can imagine relating to society s outcasts in a non-condescending way.

But as nice a woman as she must be, Mrs. Bush isn t our first choice for heading up a federal anti-gang initiative. The government s gang czar should be someone with street credibility and a whole lot of law enforcement experience. For all of her good qualities, Mrs. Bush has neither.

Street gangs and the pathologies that create them are a complex phenomenon in urban and suburban America. Anyone who takes them on needs to be more than a good role model.

Niceness is no substitute for a familiarity with the conditions that drive young people into violent gangs. An initiative without a clear vision of how to deal with the problem is doomed to operate on only a symbolic level. The President obviously loves his wife, but he didn t do her any favors by putting her in charge of such an important effort. What s next naming Barbara and Jenna Bush to run the Department of Education?

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