WASHINGTON – Laura Bush is focusing on education and women's issues as she begins her first solo trip overseas representing the president -- a coming out on the international stage for the first lady.
Mrs. Bush and her daughter Jenna, 20, arrived in the rainy twilight Monday evening in Paris, first stop on a 10-day tour that also includes the capitals of Hungary and the Czech Republic.
In the tradition of Eleanor Roosevelt, Pat Nixon and Hillary Clinton, Mrs. Bush was reaching beyond U.S. borders to try to affect policies. The former teacher and librarian begins Tuesday with an address on education and early childhood development to the annual forum of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Later, in Budapest and Prague, Mrs. Bush turns her attention to women's health, the reconstruction of post-Taliban Afghanistan and the condition of women and girls there.
Before now, Mrs. Bush traveled abroad on the arm of President Bush -- to Europe, Asia, Central and South America -- and confined her separate appearances mostly to colorful, cultural photo opportunities. In Beijing, she tried noodle-making. In Tuscany she shopped for ceramics.
Though Mrs. Bush will meet in Prague with Czech President Vaclav Havel, a spokesman for Havel said it is a private -- not official -- visit. And the Hungarian newspaper Nepszabadsag has written about her visit to Budapest as mostly a reunion with lifelong Dallas friend Nancy Brinker, whom Bush appointed U.S. ambassador to Hungary.
"In a way, I'm surprised she's doing her first solo international trip this early in her tenure but I'm glad she's doing it," said Melanne Verveer, chief of staff to Mrs. Clinton when she was in the White House.
Verveer, now chairwoman of the Vital Voices global women's group, has worked with Mrs. Bush on the plight of Afghan women. Verveer credits the first lady with working behind the scenes to secure funds from the Labor Department and U.S. Agency for International Development for a program giving training and wages to Afghan seamstresses making uniforms for girls newly allowed into schools that the Taliban had closed to them.
To prepare, Mrs. Bush was briefed by State Department and National Security Council personnel -- right down to the names of foreign leaders' pets (French President Jacques Chirac, evidently a fan of Japanese wrestling, calls his pooch Sumo). And she travels with her husband's top adviser, Karen Hughes, plus a State Department helper.
Mrs. Bush's itinerary is on the light side, with some days kept free for private sightseeing. And aides say she will break no new ground in U.S. foreign policy or even tiptoe into more sensitive issues -- not like Mrs. Nixon, who addressed South Africa's racial policies on a 1972 African tour, or Mrs. Clinton, who scolded the Tunisian president on his country's human rights shortcomings while visiting in 1999.
But Mrs. Bush, by amplifying U.S. humanitarian concern for the Muslim people of Afghanistan, does carry an important goodwill message at a time when her husband's administration is seeking Arab support for his anti-terrorism and Mideast policies.
"Goodwill is not something to sniff at, particularly now when there is so much anti-Americanism overseas," said historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a student of America's first ladies.
Wearing the uniform of the American Red Cross, Mrs. Roosevelt was the first first lady to make her own trips overseas. She visited American troops fighting World War II in the Pacific and in Europe.
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, which is leading a philanthropic campaign to help Afghan women, said she hopes Mrs. Bush can turn talk and goodwill into bigger U.S. aid checks.
"I just know she's a compassionate person who wants to help. But the women and girls of Afghanistan need real help and they need it desperately, they need it now," said Smeal.
When she leaves Prague next week, Mrs. Bush will join the president for official visits in Germany, Russia, and Normandy, France, and cede center stage back to him.