West Wing Story: On The Road With Laura Bush

"Did you pack 15 different outfits? Or 30?" Laura Bush playfully asked reporters as we boarded her plane Monday. It had taken days to prepare just the First Lady's clothes for her first solo trip to Europe.

Her multiple garment bags were grouped by the cities she would visit during our nine-day tour: Paris, Budapest and Prague. The famously organized First Lady went so far as to have a computerized itinerary of which outfits were for what events.

Even before she debuted her soft lemon Oscar de la Renta suit Tuesday morning at her first international speech, Le Figaro was praising her toilette simple (natural look). "She listens more than she speaks," the paper also said. Perhaps with that assumption in mind, Le Figaro scarcely covered the speech Bush gave that morning to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development about education as a weapon against terrorism. First Ladies, it seems, are still relegated to the style pages--especially in France, where the candidates' wives only entered the electoral fray for the first time during the recent elections. Even then the French public often seemed more interested in what they wore than what they said.

During our flight to Paris, however, Laura Bush was not weighing the benefits of Scaasi versus Christian Dior. She was reworking her speech. She had just read about a bombing in Russia by suspected Chechen rebels over the weekend. Forty-one people had died during a parade to commemorate the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. Seventeen of them were children. "The horror," she told us later, "that your child is marching in the parade ... and then there'd be a terrorist attack that would kill 17 children. You know, the horror of it, I think, is really worldwide. And that's what we all need to speak out about."

True to her conviction, she spent several hours working the incident into her speech and beefing up a mention of suicide bombers. What was originally going to be just a passing reference ended up as a call to action by the time we touched down in Paris. "Every parent, every teacher, every leader has a responsibility to condemn the terrible tragedy of children blowing themselves up to kill others," she told a crowd of about 700 people, who politely applauded at the end of her 25-minute remarks.

It was a compassionate plea from a woman who has been called "comforter in chief" back home. And it was a far cry from Hillary Clinton's controversial international visit seven years ago to Beijing--my first big trip with a politician. In order to address the United Nations international conference on women, Clinton had to battle both the White House and the State Department, which were concerned about how her appearance would affect relations with China. "Women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights," she told a crowd of thousands of wildly cheering and chanting women. As anticipated, the message was quite controversial.

Laura Bush's foreign foray has been tame by comparison. She is practiced at the art of not making waves. During a roundtable with the small contingent of reporters traveling with her, I asked the First Lady about madrasas--Muslim religious schools in places like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that can be training grounds for terror. She was politic. "I think we can work with all of the countries that have madrasas and encourage them to make sure that the madrasas also include a mainstream education," she said before expertly turning to the point she wanted to make. "But it's also really important to make sure girls are in the those schools, are educated. If you have half of the society that's not educated at all, you know, that really is bad for a country."

This is not the kind of stuff that makes big headlines back home. But in her own way, Laura Bush is having an impact abroad. When she visited with a group of Afghan women in the White House several months ago, they hailed the importance of the radio address she gave condemning the horrible treatment of women under the Taliban. She was a bit taken aback to learn about the impact it had. The address got coverage from Turkey to Qatar. Since then the First Lady has said that women need a seat at the table during the reconstruction of Afghanistan. She will make that point next week in Prague, when she takes to the airwaves again, this time on Radio Free Afghanistan.

Of course the trip is not all work. Yesterday, the First Lady had a private tour of the Louvre, which is normally closed Tuesdays, and the Musee D'Orsay. She does not speak French or have the fashion flair that Jackie Kennedy used to woo Paris. But she is an art lover and that may endear her to the French, who have not been big fans of her husband. Laura Bush has always been a bit of a cultural attache for her husband. When he mispronounced dancer Alvin Ailey's last name at a recent event at the Kennedy Center in Washington, she corrected him. She's the one who ordered copies of the PBS cultural series, "The Face of Russia," so she and her husband could watch the videos together before she left. This morning, she visited the Guimet Museum's exhibit of Afghan art saved from destruction. When she heard that some of the traditional jewelry is once again being made in Afghanistan, she said: "Life is coming back."

International trips have always been liberating for First Ladies. Hillary Clinton used them in part to escape tumult in Washington. They also break the fish bowl that is public life--at least for awhile. Tuesday morning in Paris began just the way Laura Bush wished every day could start back home. She took a walk unrecognized through the lovely Bois de Boulogne. So far her 20-year-old daughter Jenna, who is traveling with her, has not been beset by paparazzi. That's in part thanks to the protective efforts of her mom. When we landed in Paris Monday night, the First Lady walked off the plane alone. When Jenna came down the stairs a few minutes later, a Secret Service agent walked beside her holding up two garment bags to block the cameras' view.

The paparazzi finally caught up with the First Lady this afternoon when she met privately with Mariane Pearl, the widow of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. French photographers followed the Bush entourage from the Guimet Museum to an apartment belonging to one of Pearl's friends, where the two women spoke for about 50 minutes. Pearl, a French citizen who now lives in Paris, is just a few weeks from giving birth to the couple's son. "They discussed how we can help empower parents and teach children not to grow up hating," explained Karen Hughes, the president's top communication aide who is traveling with us. During the "bittersweet" meeting, the First Lady complimented Pearl on her strength. "She has a resilient spirit," said Hughes.

Pearl is livid at CBS News for showing a 30-second portion of the videotape on which her husband, Daniel, is killed. But instead of being bitter, she talked with the First Lady about "the extent of the propaganda we are up against when it comes to dealing with the terror networks." Bush vowed to keep fighting terrorism by speaking out about "our values." No doubt on our flight to Budapest tomorrow, she will be rewriting her next speech.