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Laura Bush begins solo European tour

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Laura Bush, a onetime librarian from Texas who married into a politically ambitious family, embarked on her first overseas tour as first lady Monday, heading to Europe to make her mark on the world stage.

The soft-spoken Texan, who has emerged as a poised, low-key and calm presence in the Bush administration, is scheduled to give a speech Tuesday before the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, where she will talk about the importance of education for children.

Traveling with Jenna, one of her college-aged twin daughters, Laura Bush also is scheduled to visit Hungary and the Czech Republic. In Prague, she will participate in a roundtable on Afghanistan before she joins her husband, President Bush, on May 22 in Berlin.

"She's not going to have any trouble at all," predicted Letitia Baldrige, the social secretary and chief of staff for first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

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The first lady's absence from the White House was noted Monday by President Bush when he spoke at a fund-raiser for Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan, the Republican candidate for governor in that state.

"You know, when I married Laura, she was a public school librarian," he said. "She wasn't really interested in politics, and if the truth be known, she really didn't care for politicians. But, thankfully, she agreed to marry me, and now the American people are beginning to see why.

"She is calm and she is steady. She's got great values and a huge heart. A lot of people are still wondering why she said yes."

Laura Bush, 55, has often said she is not trying to emulate any of her predecessors, including her mother-in-law Barbara Bush and the widely traveled Hillary Clinton, who spoke out often on major policy issues.

Laura Bush's trip, however, sparked a new round of commentary on the airwaves and in newspapers about what kind of first lady now occupies the East Wing.

"Laura Bush is not the traditionalist that I think a lot of people thought she was going to be," said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a presidential historian, who has written a book about first ladies. "She has a graduate degree and a very serious lifelong interest in early childhood development."

In a historic first, Laura Bush in November recorded a Saturday White House radio address -- usually a platform for the president -- speaking on the plight of women and children in Afghanistan under what she described as the oppressive Taliban regime.

Anthony noted that while in Prague the first lady is scheduled to speak to the people of Afghanistan via Radio Free Afghanistan and participate in the roundtable on developing civil society in Afghanistan.

Hillary Clinton, he pointed out, highlighted women's and children's issues during her tenure as first lady.

"So even though they're entirely different women with different motivations and levels of public experience, they carry a lot of the same messages," he said in an interview with CNN.

Eleanor Roosevelt blazed a trail as an independent traveler during the FDR administration, speaking out on civil rights and other policy issues that sometimes generated controversy. She even visited troops during World War II.

Subsequent first ladies have followed suit with their own style, traveling on their own or with their husbands.

They often represent the United States at high-profile state ceremonies, such as funerals, but sometimes address policy matters or favored causes.

An elegant Jackie Kennedy drew such adoring crowds in Paris on a trip that elicited President Kennedy's memorable line, "I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris."

Nancy Reagan promoted her anti-drug campaign in Europe and represented the White House at the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Hillary Clinton traveled far and wide on her own, visiting more than 50 countries, stressing equality for women and the importance of education.

Rosalynn Carter touted human rights on trips to seven Caribbean and Latin American nations. Even today, she remains active, accompanying her husband on his ground-breaking trip to Cuba.

It's not Laura Bush's first solo trip abroad as first lady -- she represented the White House at last month's funeral of the queen mother in London -- but it marks her overseas speaking debut and it's her first extensive solo tour.

Anthony, the historian, said trips by first ladies have great potential in terms of public relations.

Baldrige said a first lady can hold considerable sway as an unofficial diplomat.

"She sits next to the head of state at every dinner," Baldrige said.

But Margaret Carlson, a member of The Capital Gang on CNN and a Time columnist, said the trips have a limited value.

"You know, I don't think first ladies really change," she said. "They go to friendly countries, they don't change America's standing in the world, really. But it does help a president. It makes a president look human."



 
 
 
 






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