prepares for first solo trip abroad
Education and health care will be topics of European speeches
By G. ROBERT HILLMAN / The Dallas Morning News, 05/12/2002
|WASHINGTON Laura Bush takes
in Paris in the springtime this week and Budapest
and Prague, too.
It will be her first extended solo trip abroad as first lady and, in many ways, an inevitable new step on a long trail blazed by her predecessors.
Jacqueline Kennedy did it with a splash 40 years ago with high-profile visits to India and Pakistan. And Hillary Rodham Clinton regularly traveled the world, promoting education, health care and micro-loan programs designed largely to help poor women.
On this trip, Mrs. Bush will be more low-key, though no less ambitious in her own businesslike way.
She will discuss education and health care, two issues that she has long advocated. And, in an unusual venue, she will direct a 15-minute address to Afghanistan on the Radio Free Europe network.
"It's a good opportunity for her to use a global stage to talk about something that's important," said the first lady's press secretary, Noelia Rodriguez, summing up the 10-day trip. "She's very much looking forward to it."
Mrs. Bush's daughter, Jenna, a 20-year-old student at the University of Texas, also will make the trip, along with one of President Bush's top aides, counselor Karen Hughes.
First stop: Paris
The first lady will start in Paris with a speech on education Tuesday to the 30-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, then move on to Hungary and the Czech Republic to discuss health care issues and Afghan relief efforts.
On May 22, she will join the president in Berlin for another week of travel through Germany, Russia, France and Italy.
First ladies "represent their husbands and therefore represent their country, and we have every reason to expect that Laura Bush will be a complete pro at this," said Barbara Kellerman, author of All the President's Kin.
Foreign travel by first ladies is no longer the headline grabber that it was when a fashionable Mrs. Kennedy swept through India and Pakistan in 1962 to the cheers of adoring crowds.
The first ladies who have followed have made their own tours, with and without their husbands, drawing their own gaggles of reporters and photographers. But none has spawned the near rock-star hysteria of Mrs. Kennedy's tour or the controversies of some of Mrs. Clinton's venues.
Mrs. Clinton's 1995 trip to Beijing for the U.N. Conference on Women drew particularly harsh criticism from conservative Republicans, who charged it was a "left-wing," anti-family gathering.
Mrs. Clinton pushed ahead, though, as she did on other occasions when her pursuit of women's rights and other issues stirred up a fuss and, along the way, won plaudits from many women's and human rights advocates.
"Hillary needed to build her own image," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst and senior scholar at the University of Southern California, noting that Mrs. Clinton is now a Democratic senator from New York.
Mrs. Bush, she added, does not push the political envelope.
"Different first ladies have made different trips abroad for different purposes ... now for many presidencies," said Dr. Kellerman, executive director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Mrs. Bush's trip will be very much in the "footsteps of some of her predecessors," Dr. Kellerman suggested.
"First ladies have been increasingly emboldened," she said. But they still "do not run around talking about national security issues."
And those who have watched Mrs. Bush say she would never even think of it.
A former elementary teacher and school librarian, she has settled into a rather traditional role as first lady, pushing issues that she is comfortable with, particularly reading and recruiting new teachers.
She calls herself the president's "partner." But she quickly adds: "He was the one elected. I would have never run."
In many ways, her style right down to the occasional witty quip is like that of her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, who was in the White House from 1989 until 1993.
In any case, Laura Bush has eschewed the hands-on, co-presidency approach that Mrs. Clinton initially tried by directing a White House task force on health care.
Mrs. Bush has shown "there is another way," said Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University in Montreal who wrote Mr. and Mrs. President.
"The great achievement so far really is the silence of the critics," Dr. Troy suggested, noting that Mrs. Bush has drawn universally good reviews since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
She "rose to that challenge," he said, and stepped forward to "help the nation heal."
Before the attacks, Mrs. Bush had been quick to stake out education issues and to establish in Washington the same sort of successful book festival that she had nurtured in Austin when her husband was governor.
On Sept. 11, she changed with the rest of America.
She reached out to twin daughters Jenna and Barbara, to her mother, Jenna Welch and to a stunned nation.
She went on Oprah Winfrey's television talk show to reassure children and parents alike. She took questions from the National Press Club. And she followed up by taking over one of the president's weekly Saturday radio addresses to denounce what she called the retreating Taliban's "brutal repression of women."
The first lady pointedly noted that the "terrorists and the Taliban forbid education for women," a theme she's likely to revisit in new light on Radio Free Europe, now that the Taliban have been vanquished in Afghanistan.
"It's looking forward," Ms. Hughes said, previewing a bit of the radio address. "One of the ways to make sure that we build an Afghanistan that is different from the Afghanistan of the past is to help educate all its people."
Two of the stops Budapest and Prague will be new for Mrs. Bush, but she will have some familiar guides at her side.
In Paris, it will be Jeanne Johnson Phillips, the former Dallas public relations executive who is now the U.S. ambassador to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
In Budapest, it will be Nancy Brinker of Dallas. a friend who has led a crusade for breast-cancer awareness and is now the ambassador to Hungary.
And in Prague, it will be Craig Stapleton, a presidential cousin and former investor with Mr. Bush in the Texas Rangers baseball team who is now the ambassador to the Czech Republic.
Mr. Stapleton and Ms. Brinker are "Bush Pioneers," who helped raise at least $100,000 each for his presidential campaign. And Ms. Phillips, also a GOP fund-raiser, directed the president's inaugural last year.
For Mrs. Bush in Europe, as it is at home, it will be a mix of old friends, new business and a pinch or two of politics.
And she's no "pushover" on any front, Dr. Troy suggested. "Laura Bush has understood on so many levels the central character of the role."
"She has been strong and involved," he said, "but not in a way that oversteps and not in a way that alienates."
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