Oprah on the defensive after turning down Afghanistan tour invite

WASHINGTON: Maybe the White House was courting women voters. Maybe it was trying to show the upside of war. Or maybe President Bush just wanted the credibility that comes with the Oprah seal of approval.

WASHINGTON: Maybe the White House was courting women voters. Maybe it was trying to show the upside of war. Or maybe President Bush just wanted the credibility that comes with the Oprah seal of approval.

Either way, Miss "You go, girl

wasn't going for it.

On March 25, an assemblage of high-profile American women was supposed to tour Afghanistan schools, cameras in tow, as female students attended for the first time in years. Slated for the outing were Presidential advisor Karen Hughes and, possibly, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice.

But the star of the trip was supposed to be Oprah Winfrey. When she declined - initially citing her talk show's unforgiving schedule - the junket was postponed indefinitely, and Winfrey took a beating in the press for being "too busy

to answer her country's call in a time of war.

Last week, Winfrey defended her decision in an off-air call to Star Jones, cohost of ABC's The View. Winfrey said she felt "extremely used" by the White House. Now citing commitments to charitable events as her reason for not going, she claimed that Hughes told her the trip would go on with or without her.

"So imagine my surprise. I wake up and read in the newspaper that I'm being cavalier,

Jones quoted Winfrey as saying.

The reason behind the trip, according to the Chicago Tribune (which originally reported the story), was that Bush advisors fear the public is growing wary of the brutality of war. The trip was intended to provide a break from bloodshed, to broadcast images of liberation.

Given Bush's difficulty in reaching women voters in the 2000 election, however, the significance of sending a lineup of prominent women to publicize the return of Afghan girls to school cannot be discounted.

The White House isn't commenting on the affair, but reports indicate a replacement celebrity is being sought.

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