AS GEORGE W. BUSH BEGAN HIS EUROPEAN TOUR, THE FIRST LADY WOUND UP HER OWN VISIT BY SENSITIVELY NAVIGATING THE FINE LINE BETWEEN POLITICS AND PR

When Karen Hughes asked President Bush about sharing his weekly radio address with his wife some months ago, he replied, "What do you need me for?"

They agreed that Laura Bush would be the most effective in getting out the message: condemning the Taliban's treatment of women. She became the only First Lady to present a presidential radio address and, in doing so, she launched her international debut as a soft-spoken advocate for the administration's foreign-policy goals. "She's a natural communicator," explains Hughes.

On Tuesday, the First Lady presented Act II. In Prague, at the tail end of her first solo tour abroad, Mrs. Bush gave a 13-minute address on Radio Free Afghanistan. "America ba shooma ahst [America is with you]," she greeted listeners in Farsi. With photographers in the cramped studio clicking and flashing in her face, she dashed off the speech in just one take. It was then translated into Afghanistan's other main languages, Dari and Pashto. With the Loya Jirga--a grand assembly of Afghan leaders--coming up in June, the First Lady had a special message for the country: "I hope the women of Afghanistan will not stand on the sidelines as these decision are made," she said. "You have a big opportunity and a lot at stake." Some 350 women have asked to be included in the 4,700-delegate council so far, she explained later. Yet as of mid-May, only about 40 had been selected.

Mrs. Bush's message wasn't just for Afghan ears. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, headquartered in Prague, broadcast the address in another 32 languages and 25 countries. Mrs. Bush gave a litany of the good deeds America is doing in Afghanistan, from providing measles vaccines to donating 5 million Afghan-language textbooks. "We care about you, and we will be your partners in the reconstruction of your country," she said. Much like she did in her first radio address, she put a human face on the war. Her nine-day European trip has fit into the White House's "global communications" strategy to fight anti-American propaganda by talking about "our values," explains Hughes, who has been traveling with the First Lady.

But even among U.S. allies, it is a fight. Mrs. Bush joined her husband today in Berlin, where protesters greeted the couple with graffiti such as SET BUSH ON FIRE and BUSH GO HOME. Berlin was bracing itself for violent demonstrations by mobilizing 10,000 police officers--a post-WWII record. "I think there are people around the word who protest at--certainly at every big meeting where there are world leaders," she said before leaving Prague. "I would like to encourage those people ... to use their energy and enthusiasm to do something specific to help other people."

Mrs. Bush proved herself to be more than sightseer in chief during her trip. Certainly the NGO leaders she met with in Prague saw her as a direct conduit to her husband. Simon Panek, who was a student leader during Czechoslovakia's 1989 Velvet Revolution and now does humanitarian work in Afghanistan, told her not once but twice that without U.S. forces in Afghanistan "there will be no peace for sure ... There are a lot of people waiting to start a fight if they are not guarded."

Mrs. Bush said later that she would pass along his message to her husband, but she carefully avoided expressing an opinion herself on whether the United States should provide peacekeeping forces. "I think I'll defer to the president, and to the secretary of State, and to the secretary of Defense, and to the national-security adviser, and all of those other people, first, before I make any recommendations," she said with a wry smile on her face.

In three roundtables she has had with the small gaggle of reporters travelling with her, the First Lady has been a deft--if at times reluctant--handler of the press. She has used a light touch of sarcasm to bat down questions she thought went too far, but has not shied away from issues of substance. While touring Prague Castle, Mrs. Bush easily switched from discussing rococo chandeliers to Russia's potential alliance with NATO. She had read Czech President Vaclav Havel's op-ed piece in the Washington Post and discussed it with the leader. She said her husband agreed with Havel, then added a First Lady's touch, saying Russia could be a "nice" ally to NATO, but not a member.

Reporters have, of course, tried to engage her in controversy. She did jump into the fray to defend her husband during the September 11 blame game last week. But mostly she has shut us down. When one reporter asked why her husband's administration has not released the $34 million it owes the U.N. Population Fund for family planning, she said, "I understand the administration's position." When pushed to elaborate, she ended the conversation saying, "I really don't know that much about that issue." And yet she seemed to know more than she let on. She took exception with the reporter's characterization that none of the money had been released, interjecting midquestion: "Some of the money ..."

Women's issues are not Laura Bush's cause celebre. And yet she herself has become a celeb for some women at home and, now, abroad. After her first radio address in the U.S., she said she was surprised to hear makeup saleswomen commenting on it when she was out shopping. Yesterday, a young woman who works at Radio Free Europe and had just returned from Afghanistan, presented her with several letters she carried back from women there. "In the name of God the most merciful and kind," one said, "This letter is the voice of an Afghan woman. A woman who is tired of unluckiness and wants to build a life." The letters asked for the First Lady's help on everything from "building more schools in cities and in villages" to "digging deep wells." They all invited her to Afghanistan.

But first, Mrs. Bush will focus on some women's issues at home. She has always kept an eye on how things will play among female voters. When the president was getting bad press because it looked like his 2002 budget would not cover birth control for federal employees, she called Budget Director Mitch Daniels. She asked him to correct the misimpression among reporters. He put his press shop to work. This fall she'll lend her support to some women candidates running for Senate. And she'll continue to help her husband make up the gender gap by traveling the country promoting his education policy and Freedom Corps. "She's a huge political asset because she doesn't come across as a political asset," says GOP consultant Ed Gillespie. Certainly, that seems to have been the case on this trip.