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Laura Bush: Iraq casualties 'wrenching'

First lady details husband's secret Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad

First lady Laura Bush:
First lady Laura Bush: "It's a painful time for our country when we lose people."

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Laura Bush
Larry King
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Celebrating the Christmas season during wartime is "bittersweet," and the almost daily reports of casualties in Iraq are a "wrenching" part of life in the White House, first lady Laura Bush said.

"This holiday, when we have so many American military men and women deployed, it's a bittersweet holiday for the families who are here separated from their loved ones," Bush said Monday on CNN's "Larry King Live."

"It's a painful time for our country when we lose people," she said. "It's really a difficult time, but it's also a very, very challenging time for our country. And Americans are strong.

"I see it everywhere I go," Bush added. "I see it when I visit military bases, when I visit Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] or Bethesda Naval Hospital with the president."

Bush said she has not been surprised by the difficulties the U.S.-led coalition has encountered in trying to secure and rebuild Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime.

"I don't know why we should be surprised," she said. "It's very, very difficult to build a democracy. We know that. We should know it from our own history. We've had 200 years to build our democracy."

In her interview with King, Bush also provided new details about the president's secret visit to U.S. troops in Baghdad on Thanksgiving. Contrary to news reports that she knew nothing about the mission until the last minute, Bush said she learned about the trip some six weeks earlier.

"I knew that, of course, it was a big secret. I didn't mention it to anyone, and we didn't mention it to each other that often," she said. "Then finally, on that Wednesday right before Thanksgiving, we knew it was definitely on. And so I was there on the front porch to give George a hug when he and [national security adviser] Condoleezza [Rice] got into the unmarked van to drive to the airport."

However, Bush daughters Barbara and Jenna did not learn about the trip until immediately before the president's departure, and his parents did not know until they arrived at the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, on Thanksgiving, the first lady said.

"I think it was really one of the best-kept secrets ever," she said. "It had to be a really good secret because the security was so tight and because the president didn't want to jeopardize the lives of anyone to be able to do this."

The first lady conceded that she initially was concerned about the trip.

"By that Wednesday night, I knew they probably wouldn't go unless they really thought it was 99 percent safe. So I was not that concerned ... once they had left."

No surprises for upcoming holidays

The Bush family is scheduled to spend Christmas Day at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland before traveling to the Crawford ranch for New Year's Day. The first lady said there will be no surprises during these holidays.

She also said that she wants to visit Afghanistan next year, and, although no plans have been set, "it looks pretty good" that she will make the trip.

"So I hope I'll have the chance to go," she said. "I don't have it on my schedule yet, but I'd love to have that chance."

She also said she is looking forward to the presidential campaign, and she said she plans to campaign actively on her husband's behalf.

"I do like it. I like seeing people," she said. "It gives me a chance to see friends, people who I've known from other campaigns and certainly from my husband's last campaign, to meet new friends who are new supporters of my husband.

"I'm very proud of the job that he's done. And I'm very proud of how steady he is."

The first lady also discussed her visit this year to France, where, during a time of tense Franco-American relations, she was famously kissed on the hand by French President Jacques Chirac -- an image seen all over the world.

"He, of course, is very charming, like the French are," she said. "I was a little surprised at how the picture went around the world on the front page of the papers."

Asked what has surprised her the most about assuming the responsibilities of the White House, the first lady said the "magnitude" of it, "how important the United States of America is to the world right now."

"Every country comes to us and wants us to help them in some way or another, or help solve a problem. And because they come and want help and ask us for help, they also blame us for a lot of things that really aren't our fault."

The president drops in

As part of the interview, Bush gave King a tour of the White House Christmas decor. And at the tour's end, the president dropped in on the pair.

"We want all of our fellow Americans to have a great holiday season," President Bush said. "And we especially extend our greetings and joy to our troops overseas. There are some fine people there serving our country, and I know it's hard for their families to be separated."

Asked if he was geared up for the 2004 campaign, the president said, "Not right now."

"When you're an incumbent, you do your job, and I've got a lot on my agenda these days," he said. "The politics will come in its own time. We've got about a year, 11 months, before the people vote. And there'll be ample time for campaigns."

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