U.S. first lady Michelle Obama calls Laura Bush a role model, friend

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By Annika McGinnis

(Reuters) - U.S. first lady Michelle Obama said she considered her predecessor Laura Bush a "role model and a friend," as the two took the stage together on Wednesday at an event on empowering women in Africa.

Despite their husbands' political differences, Obama said that Bush had "long been an inspiration."

The forum, held at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, was part of U.S.-Africa summit taking place in Washington this week and included 27 African first ladies. Also attending was former President George W. Bush.

Urging African first ladies to use their influence to help women, Obama praised Laura Bush's efforts in fighting cervical and breast cancer in sub-Saharan Africa.

"Laura Bush set a high bar for me during her time in the White House, and she has continued to do outstanding work around the world since she and her husband left Washington. And I consider her not just a role model, but also a friend."

The two first got to know each other in November 2008, just after President Barack Obama was elected to the White House. Laura Bush gave Michelle Obama a tour of the living quarters.

Laura Bush defended Michelle Obama during the 2008 campaign when critics accused Obama of being unpatriotic for saying support for her husband, who became the first African American president, had made her "really proud" of her country for the first time. Bush said that Obama's comments were often misconstrued, leading Obama to write her a thank-you note.

Last summer, the two discussed women's health in Tanzania as part of President Obama's African tour.

On Wednesday, they shared stories about how they developed their public passions and commiserated about challenges they had faced as spouses to the U.S. president.

"We're elected by one man," Bush said, to laughter.

Michelle Obama, who has used her role to focus on childhood obesity but has been criticized for "nanny-state" scolding, said that regardless of whether first ladies were "shy" or "aggressive," each had to work within their abilities.

"Watching Mrs. Bush, she has been able to traverse all of this with a level of grace and kindness and compassion," Obama said. "Being president doesn't change who you are; it reveals who you are. And that's true for first spouses as well."

Former President Bush announced the expansion of his "Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon" cervical and breast cancer prevention program to Namibia and Ethiopia. It builds on the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief program, which Bush started in office and which is widely touted for having dramatically cut AIDS deaths.

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