Got to admire Bush: He eats with his fingers


HOUSTON -- It seems like after the big events, I always remember the small moments:

The Republican National Committee Gala was supposed to be most extravagant event of the convention.

As it turned out, it went well beyond extravagance and ended up somewhere in that area known as wretched excess.

It was a lunch for several thousand people. And though it took place entirely indoors in the George R. Brown Convention Center, this did not prevent the luncheon guests from being led to their tables by a cowboy doing rope tricks on horseback.

Following the horse came a marching band and following the band came the Houston Oiler cheerleaders, wearing skintight leotards that came very close to revealing their family values.

There was also a real stagecoach, red with yellow wheels, pulled by two brown horses and big chuck wagons pulled by waiters and waitresses dressed in blue jeans, denim shirts and red bandannas.

Lunch cost $1,000 a plate, and this single event raised $4 million for the Republican Party.

The menu for the diners was purposefully downscale. It has become a fad among the rich in America to eat poor. So men wearing watches that cost as much as automobiles and women wearing their daytime jewels dug into fried chicken, potato salad, cole slaw and corn bread.

The ice water was served in mason jars. The coffee came in enamel cups.

The masters of ceremony were Cheryl Ladd of "Charlie's Angels" and Gerald McRaney of "Major Dad." Bruce Willis sat on the dais as did Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And, oh yeah, George and Barbara Bush and Dan and Marilyn Quayle showed up, too.

In a railroad car.

Pulled past the luncheon tables by a steam locomotive.

Just your ordinary down-home kind of lunch.

After some music and singing, everybody sat down to eat. And I kept my eyes glued to George Bush.

Because I wondered how a president of the United States, facing thousands of people on an elevated dais at a fancy gala, would eat fried chicken: silverware or fingers?

I didn't have to wait long for my answer.

As the dignitaries on each side of him picked up their knives and forks and began cutting tiny, polite mouthfuls, George Bush picked up a chicken leg with both hands and began eating.

And I mean he tore into it! And every now and then he wiped his mouth on a big blue napkin. And reached for some more chicken.

L After lunch, he was, as protocol demands, the final speaker.

And it was at the very end of his speech that I saw the old George Bush, the George Bush I saw four years ago in New Hampshire during the primary when he was behind in the polls and fighting for his political life.

In front of all these grand folks in Houston, Bush did not talk of grand things. Instead, he talked about him and Barbara being a young couple in Texas decades ago.

"I remember the rhythms of that part of the country," he said. "Friday night football. Saturday night picnics. The Sunday sermon. And Barbara and I raised a family, built a business and we made friends.

"And I remember when the work was done how we sat around the table late at night and we talked -- report cards, schoolyard fights, small things, big dreams."

And then his voice grew thick with emotion and once or twice it came close to breaking.

"And now we are about to embark on the fight of our life. And I look forward to this fight. I can feel it, I can feel it building in my blood," he said. "And one thing that is the most comfort is that, through good times and bad, I have had you at my side."

It was just a small moment. And if you want to be cynical, you could say the emotion was faked.

But I don't say that. I say George Bush can be an emotional guy. And a tougher fighter than most people give him credit for.

Besides, I don't care what the cynics or even the Democrats say:

Anybody who eats chicken with his fingers can't be all bad.

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