WASHINGTON – The first time Laura Bush traveled to Europe, she was just out of college and on one of those "17-day, 17-country trips" by bus and train. She returns next week by Air Force jet for an official tour of Paris, Hungary and the Czech Republic with daughter Jenna.
Mrs. Bush, who leaves Monday for 10 days on her first international mission without her husband, wants to highlight U.S.-led efforts to rebuild Afghanistan.
"We thought it's a really good time for us, for me, to have the chance to travel to Europe and thank all of the allies," Mrs. Bush said Thursday, previewing the trip for reporters.
She will travel as President Bush's official representative, having been briefed by State Department officials who will also accompany her, along with presidential counselor Karen Hughes.
Aides say the first lady, after dozens of meetings with world leaders and their spouses, has developed what she calls an easy, "almost instant simpatico" with them that eliminates any butterflies she might have about representing the United States overseas for the first time.
She seemed determined to mix fun with business, saying she is setting aside some time for "a little sightseeing, shopping, eating — all of our favorite things."
In a formal address in Paris to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, Mrs. Bush will underscore progress toward ensuring the education of women and girls in Afghanistan.
By visiting an exhibit of Afghan art at Paris' Guimet Museum, she hopes to highlight the magnitude of reconstruction needs in Afghanistan since its Taliban militia — which not only banned females from schools and destroyed centuries-old cultural treasures such as the towering Bamiyan Buddhas — collapsed under the U.S.-led assault last year.
"I think the destruction of the huge Buddhas that had been there for so long is really just a symbol of how destructive the Taliban regime was, how destructive to people, but also to all the fruits of the labor of people for so many thousands of years," she said.
While in the Czech capital of Prague, headquarters of Radio Free Europe, Mrs. Bush is to deliver a broadcast to the Afghan people and add Afghanistan's banner to the lineup of flags from countries that receive the U.S. government-funded radio news service.
The trip also is a chance to see old friends in their new homes.
At each stop, Mrs. Bush and Jenna, 20, will stay at ambassadorial residences with Texas friends and campaign contributors who won diplomatic postings from the president: Jeanne Phillips, U.S. ambassador to the OECD; Nancy Brinker, ambassador to Hungary; and Craig Stapleton, ambassador to the Czech Republic, whose wife is the president's cousin.
Brinker, one of the big-money "Pioneer" contributors to Bush's 2000 presidential campaign along with Stapleton, founded the Dallas-based Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. She recruited Mrs. Bush to help when she was first lady of Texas. At the National Institute of Oncology in Budapest, the pair will speak to patients about women's health and to Hungarian officials about the role of philanthropy in public health.
Mrs. Bush sounded especially eager to meet at Prague Castle with Czech President Vaclav Havel. "He was a playwright, he was an intellectual, he was not someone you would think of as becoming the president," she said. She also meets Hungarian President Ferenc Madl.
For the trip, at the end of which she joins her husband for business in Germany, Russia and Normandy, France, Mrs. Bush has piled her bedside table with travel guides and books such as Suzanne Massey's "The Land of the Firebird" about Russian history, and "Embers" by the late Hungarian novelist Sandor Marai.
She and the president also have been watching "The Face of Russia," a video series by James Billington, the librarian of Congress.
The first lady, who has not been to Budapest or Prague, visited Paris at least twice as a young woman — the first time as part of a just-out-of-college European tour, and again one summer after she started her teaching career. She fondly recalls going with her college roommate to Parisian pet stores, an aide said, and hoped to relive that experience with her daughter.
She also hoped to keep Jenna out of the headlines. "Clearly Jenna is a private citizen and off-limits to the press and that's how she expects to be treated," said Noelia Rodriguez, spokeswoman for Mrs. Bush.
Jenna's twin sister, Barbara, was not making the trip.