Washington You're at a swanky dinner party anywhere in the country -- go ahead, pick a state -- and the person to your right or your left claims to be a Close Personal Friend of the Bushes.
"You're thinking, 'Oh, sure you are,' and you say something like, 'Isn't that nice,' " says Washington insider Jayne Ikard, who's encountered this scenario everywhere from Florida to California.
"But then when you start getting into it, it becomes perfectly clear that this person from Arkansas really is an honest-to-God good friend. And you're just glad you didn't make some sarcastic remark like, 'Of course you are, dear.' "
This friendship thing, as President Bush himself might call it, is almost a religion for the First Couple, who appear to have more pals than points of light.
Although observers say Mr. Bush's gregarious nature goes beyond basic constituency building, they acknowledge that his outgoing style has served him well politically.
But now, as recent polls show him free-falling in popularity, and as he grapples with budget and Middle East crises, "the extent to which his personal style works for him will be put to the test for the first time," says Craig Stoltz, editor of Washington's Dossier magazine.
"We'll have to see if people stop going to his movie nights. He may have a hard time building a crowd."
He certainly never has in the past. Friends are often present -- and in abundance -- at movie viewings in the White House theater, for lunch in the private dining room off the Oval Office, aboard Air Force One, spending the night in the Lincoln bedroom ("We're not used to a double bed, let alone a small one," said Pat Caulkins, wife of one of the president's Yale friends) and up at Camp David for the weekend.
"The Reagans had about six people who came to the White House regularly," says Pete Teeley, a former press secretary for Mr. Bush. "The Bushes have a different gang over every night."
The Bushes' network reaches far and wide from George Bush's childhood days in Greenwich, Conn. to his four-year congressional tour, from a fishing buddy in Maine to his secretary of state.
At a recent ceremony at the National Cathedral, Supreme Court justices and Cabinet officials found themselves seated in the back -- behind row upon row of the Bushes' 371 invited guests.
"That's what happens when you start making friends early and you don't discard them through the years," says Bruce Gelb, director of the U.S. Information Agency and an old Yale friend.
Even Barbara Bush often calls her husband "Pearl Mesta Bush," referring to the late hostess and grande dame of Washington society, and laments that she needs to keep a lot of "filler" in the refrigerator at their Kennebunkport home since dinners for 12 often turn into dinners for 32 after she's done the shopping.
"Being alone is his idea of the worst thing that can happen," says Sheila Tate, Mr. Bush's former campaign press secretary.
"He just has layers and layers of friends," says Thomas L. (Lud) Ashley, a close friend from Bush's "Skull & Bones" days at Yale and former Democratic Congressman from Ohio. "They go out like ripples in the pond."
President Bush has described his vast circuitry of friends as three "concentric circles," with those in the innermost circle a mix of high-ranking political officials and low-profile, often non-political, buddies from his college days at Yale, his oil days in Midland and Houston, Texas, ("We call ourselves the Midland Mafia," says one such friend) and his summers in Maine.
"People who aren't in politics may be more important to him than those who are," says Mr. Ashley. "Having said that, there probably isn't anybody closer to the Bushes than [Secretary of State] Jim Baker."
Along with Secretary Baker -- whose youngest daughter is President Bush's goddaughter -- the president has stocked his Cabinet with longtime friends such as Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. Also counted among those close to President Bush are administration officials including ambassador to Ireland Richard Moore, ambassador to Great Britain Henry E. Catto, chief of protocol Joseph Reed, and former Republican operatives like Dean Burch.
He maintains social ties with several members of Congress, and even since moving to the White House has continued a tradition, started in 1967, of lunching on ham, red-eye gravy and grits in the House dining room with Representative J. P. Hammerschmidt, R-Ark.
Although most of the Bush buddies are, in fact, Republicans, these friendships "transcend politics," says Representative Hammerschmidt. Whenever the congressman casts a vote contrary to the president's wishes -- as he did recently when he voted to override Mr. Bush's veto on a textile bill -- the subject "doesn't come up. If it does, it's in a lighthearted manner."
But the oldest, and possibly strongest, friendships, are outside of politics. Richmond businessman FitzGerald Bemiss, godfather to Marvin Bush, grew up playing on the rocks with George Bush during their summers in Maine. D.C. lawyer Jonathan Sloat went to Greenwich Country Day School, albeit a few years behind George Bush, met up with him at Yale and has remained a close buddy. During the 1980 presidential campaign, Mr. Sloat moved out of his Washington home temporarily so the Bushes could stay there.
Their many Texas friends have included Will and Sarah Farish, who are frequent hunting buddies; the late C. Fred Chambers (for whom the Bushes' first dog was named) and his wife, Marian; Baine P. and Mildred Kerr (Dorothy Bush LeBlond's godmother, for whom First Pooch "Millie" is named); former oil partners J. Hugh and William Liedtke and their wives.
The Bushes still invite these friends to their home for informal get-togethers as they did last year when they invited the entire Chambers clan to the White House for a pool-side luncheon. "They've been doing that since our Midland days," says Mrs. Chambers. "Only the china's a little different now."
One observer, who has mixed with the Bushes' Kennebunkport crowd, believes their vast network "is an old money thing, a class thing. Their group is a very companionable circle. Friendships are a very important part of their lives."
Although Barbara Bush has her own cache of friends -- chief among them Mary "Andy" Stewart, wife of the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, and Senate wives including Antoinette Hatfield -- most of the Bushes' longtime friends have been forged through Mr. Bush's contacts.
And he's famous for keeping up those contacts, --ing off hurried notes to friends like Navy buddy Jack Guy in Atlanta or Skull and Bonesman Thomas W. Moseley in Ohio -- sometimes just a line or two, sometimes more abbreviations than words. After the president saw Sheila Tate speak about Barbara Pierce Bush on CNN, he wrote her: "You were A-1 on CNN at 6:41 p.m. on BPB. -- GB." He's known to close his letters with words like "Where would we be without friendship?" or just "Friendship."
It's also said that the president has never met a telephone he didn't like. He calls Secretary Baker a dozen times a day. He calls friends at 11:45 a.m. to invite them to lunch that day. And he checks in from time to time with friends like Robert Boillard, a retiree whom Mr. Bush met in 1983 on the Maine waters of Saco Bay.
"I was catching fish and evidently he was not," says Mr. Boillard, of their meeting.
In fact, the day after he was elected president, Mr. Bush called his buddy in Biddeford, Maine. He just called to say, "Hi Bob, how's the fishing up there?"