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Inside Politics

Flying with the first lady: Smiles, but not much news

Story Highlights

• Six journalists join Laura Bush on trip to Africa
• Bush says trip's purpose is to let taxpayers know how their money is helping
• Bush's daughter Jenna also along for the visit
By Suzanne Malveaux
CNN
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events.

DAKAR, Senegal (CNN) -- Her plane is called Bright Star. When I settle into my seat in the back of the 757, I can tell immediately this is going to be different from traveling with the president.

I see the first lady two sections up chatting casually with her staff, sitting comfortably with her seat facing the back of the plane. There is a clear view of her, and my colleague beside me can't help but take a few pictures during this candid moment.

We (the six journalists traveling with Bush on her Africa trip) are both ignored and watched over. Nine very big guys are interspersed among us. They are her Secret Service detail and they seem to be in a constant state of changing dress -- taking off ties, putting on jackets, adjusting earpieces, tightening belts. They are amusing to watch.

We are wheels up at 9:13 a.m. ET from Andrews Air Force Base, and we've been told we've got about 7 hours before we land at our first stop in Dakar, Senegal. Consider it a 9 to 5 working day on the plane, I'm told. If only our days were ever 9 to 5.

About an hour into the flight we are served breakfast -- scrambled eggs, sausage, fruit in cream and wheat English muffins. Just as soon as I lift my fork, the first lady's team (her two press secretaries, stenographer, and photographer) come to the back of the plane to announce she is coming to speak.

With our mouths full, they realize it may not be the right time. They march back to the front to suggest later. Later comes in 10 minutes. She walks to the back and, standing in the aisle, she leans over to talk, trying to drum out the noise of the engine. We all huddle and turn our ears toward her, straining to hear. Her language is almost identical to her briefing book.

The purpose of the trip, she says, is to "let the American people know about what they're doing, through their taxpayers' money, to try to make a big difference in Africa, both in eradicating malaria, trying to reach and treat as many people as possible and avert as much infection as possible with HIV/AIDS."

Trying to drown out the engine noise, speaking in a voice just a little too loud for comfort, I ask what she thinks will be the most challenging part of the trip. She smiles and says it will be the travel, "the long distances for us to have to fly between places, and then to try to do as many things as we can possibly do in every stop....The schedule is filled, no down time, except for when we're on the plane. I hope you have on your comfortable shoes."

I try again for something more newsy. I comment on how the president's Africa mission presents a positive picture of the U.S., and whether she believes, like her husband, the Guantanamo Bay prison should be closed. "I think I'll let the administration speak on that topic. That's not one of my topics, and that's certainly not the point of the trip," she says, still smiling.

I try not to take the response as a scolding. She does offer that she hopes President Bush will come to Africa, too, not this year, but next. She smiles and says she's going up front to put on her pajamas. I envy her and wish I could do the same.

We later learn from one of her press aides that her daughter Jenna is on the plane. We marvel how she got on without any of us seeing her.

A press aide says Jenna is writing a book called "Ana's Story: A Journey of Hope" about a 17-year-old Latin American girl living with HIV-AIDS who she met while working for UNICEF. We all think this sounds interesting -- considering so much focus on high-profile young women seems to revolve around rehab and prison stints. I immediately inquire whether I might be able to pull Jenna aside on our trip to talk about her book, but am told I'll have to contact Jenna's publishing house for an interview.

Writing from my hotel room in Dakar, my first travel day leaves me wanting more. But considering it is just the first day, there's hope.


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First lady Laura Bush, right, meets the first lady of Senegal, Viviane Wade, in Dakar.

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