WASHINGTON -- When President Bush invited Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett into the Oval Office yesterday for a ceremonial signing of his measure ensuring the right to fly the American flag, he was treating the Western Maryland Republican to a coveted, if understated, bit of presidential pomp.
It lasted no more than a few moments and featured Bartlett - by himself - peering over Bush's shoulder as he put his signature on the bill, which would bar property associations from restricting the display of the flag at people's homes. Closed to the news media, except for a few seconds when still photographers could snap pictures, it was a major photo-op.
The seven-term congressman received a presidential pen that he plans to frame, along with a copy of the bill, in a plaque on the wall of his Capitol Hill office.
"This was fine," Bartlett said of the brief encounter as he waited in the White House driveway to promote his accomplishment in an interview with a Maryland TV station. "This was a good bill, a good compromise." Showing off a blue ballpoint emblazoned with Bush's signature, he added, "It's a very hefty pen."
Bush came away with something potentially more valuable, a chance to call attention to a popular initiative that virtually anyone would agree with. In a statement, Bush said he was "pleased" to have signed the measure, which he said is particularly important "as our brave men and women continue to fight to protect our country overseas."
The event highlighted Bush's use of White House bill-signing ceremonies to send broadly appealing messages, reward lawmakers and stake out positions that appeal to core Republican supporters in an election year.
"It's pretty clear that these are public relations efforts," said presidential historian George C. Edwards III. "In this case, it's literally wrapping yourself in the flag, and it's something that's uncontroversial but colorful. It's a reward for some people; it gets them a moment standing behind the president with something that was popular."
Lawmakers are eager to appear at signing ceremonies for the same reason that some spend hours scoping out a choice seat for the State of the Union address so that they can shake the president's hand on live television.
"They know that there's some national recognition," said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for House Republican Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio. "It drives media coverage, and there's a lot of pageantry involved."
Signing ceremonies can be equally useful, Edwards said, on controversial issues where "it's going to be high-profile and you want to make the case. It's a way to influence public opinion about something."
Presidents have long used bill-signings to promote their accomplishments or take a stand on a tough issue. Lyndon B. Johnson often traveled to highlight such occasions, going to Independence, Mo. in 1965 to stand beside former President Harry S. Truman in signing the bill that created Medicare and to the one-room schoolhouse that he attended in Johnson City, Texas, to sign the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Bartlett's one-on-one with Bush was arranged by the president's Capitol Hill staff, which pays special attention to lawmakers' needs and requests.
Last week, Bartlett missed an opportunity to have the president sign another measure he wrote. His bill encouraging adult stem-cell research failed in the House. It was to be signed the same day that Bush vetoed a measure that would have relaxed restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, a move that put him at odds with some in his party and majorities around the country, according to polls.
The flag measure was comparatively innocuous.
'Apple pie' bill
"It wasn't a bill that required funding or touched on hot issues like abortion or the death penalty. It was just a good, solid red-white-and-blue, hot dogs and apple pie American bill," said Hugh Warner, the Frederick flag dealer whose 2004 phone call to Bartlett's office sparked the introduction of the measure. "It's one of those - what do you call them? - American values bills."
Bartlett's measure is the first new law in a list of 10 measures that House Republicans have introduced to energize social conservative voters. Included are a bill that would amend the constitution to outlaw gay marriage and one that would require women seeking abortions after more than 20 weeks of pregnancy be told that their unborn children would be in pain during the procedure.
Bartlett said he didn't think Bush publicized the signing of the flag measure to score partisan points. "I would think that the average American, regardless of party, wants us to respect the flag," he said.
Bush seemed to have scored points with Bartlett, who said he enjoyed his time - however brief - in the Oval Office. "You get kind of a funny feeling in that room; it's such a historic room," he said.
Bartlett's office circulated a statement about the event with a photograph of Bush signing the legislation and the congressman looking on.
"It was quick," Bartlett said in the statement, "but very exciting."