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Jamestown 400 shines; historic site takes center stage as celebration begins
Vice President Dick Cheney brought the national spotlight to Jamestown on Wednesday, addressing state lawmakers from the spot from where the Virginia General Assembly first met nearly 400 years ago.
"It is striking to realize how much of America's story begins with a little three-sided fort raised on the banks of the James River four centuries ago," Cheney said in the sun-dappled Jamestown Memorial Church, where lawmakers sat shoulder-to-shoulder. "In this place, grand events were set in motion," he said. "In this place, great and noble traditions were introduced to the North American continent."
The speech kicked off a historic opening day for Virginia lawmakers, who convened the 2007 session in Richmond, then boarded buses for the trip to the Historic Triangle. Later in the evening, they gathered at the Jamestown Settlement Galleries to hear the State of the Commonwealth address from Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.
Legislators crowded into the unheated church as chilly winds swept in from the James River. Republi-cans and Democrats alike gave the vice president excellent reviews. "He spoke highly of the founding of this country on this site," said Sen. Marty Williams, R-Newport News. "It went well."
Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, called it "a grand way to kick off the whole year of events."
Del. William K. Barlow, D-Isle of Wight, said Cheney struck the right note while speaking on hallowed historical ground.
"I don't agree with his policies and some of the decisions he's made," Barlow said. "But the speech was excellent."
In fact, lawmakers could not resist breaking into raucous applause when the vice president tapped into a particular strain of commonwealth pride.
"The history of our country did not begin in Cape Cod in 1620," he said. When the cheers subsided, the vice president looked up and cracked a smile. "That's a great line," he said.
Seated near the rear of the small church, Del. G. Glenn Oder, R-Newport News, strained to hold a small video camera over the heads of his legislative colleagues to record Cheney's speech for posterity.
The day was the brainchild of Del. Melanie Rapp, R-York. She convinced her colleagues -- some of whom were privately skeptical -- that it would be a fitting way to kick off the year-long commemoration that will tell the story of American Indians, English and African people who built the foundation of what became the United States. Rapp also wanted to capitalize on the national media attention as a way to draw tourists to the region later this year.
College of William and Mary President Gene R. Nichol, who was in the audience, said Cheney's speech should be bottled up and used again to promote tourism to the Historic Triangle.
"I thought he did it right," Nichol said. "I don't think he knew how good a line it was (when he noted Jamestown's historical claim as the first representative government in North America), but he got the point very quickly."
The Virginia General Assembly -- then called the House of Burgesses -- began meeting in the original church in 1619. It is now the nation's oldest English-speaking continuously meeting legislative body. Jamestown was founded in 1607.
Cheney paid homage to the Native Americans who dealt with -- and fought with -- the English settlers, as well as Africans who came to the shores in bondage.
"Here, it's been noted, we find the beginnings of the cultural diversity that continues to shape our nation's character," he said.
Del. Kenneth C. Alexander, a black lawmaker from Norfolk, said he appreciated that reference.
"We have endured together -- Native Americans, English settlers and African-Americans," said Alexan-der, a Democrat. "In essence, we have had to co-exist. Tolerance and diversity, I thought it was important that he call attention to the contributions of African Americans and Native Americans to this nation."
After Wednesday's pomp and circumstance, the legislature will get down to the sobering business of amending the budget and agreeing on a statewide funding plan for transportation.
The stringent security restrictions and the logistics of busing down lawmakers and their guests provided an ample precursor for the numerous events during the yearlong celebration of the 400th anniversary of the English settlement at Jamestown.
"It's a good practice run for what we can expect for any high-level dignitaries who come to this year's events," said Jamestown 2007 spokesman Kevin Crossett.
Crossett said that Queen Elizabeth of England is supposed to visit the Historic Triangle in May, but it's unclear if she will be on hand for the "America's Anniversary Weekend" celebration planned for May 11-13.
He also noted that an invitation was sent to President Bush and other political leaders and ranking offi-cials.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.