George and Barbara Bush like to be down home and personal, even here and even though their roles have lifted them to a far worldlier status.
On Bush's first presidential overseas trip, the couple chatted with their old barber and the widow of the man who used to drive them around when they lived here 14 years ago. They hosted a dinner that featured barbecue flown in from Houston and served on red-and-white checked tablecloths by Chinese waiters wearing blue jeans, red bandannas and Western-style blue-and-white checked shirts. Their ceremonial gifts included cowboy boots made in Texas for Deng Xiaoping and a Jack Nicklaus putter (the one with that huge 6-inch blade) for Korean President Roh Tae Woo, a golf enthusiast.
Much of the responsibility for preserving their social style falls to Mrs. Bush, who emerged on the trip as someone who relishes interacting with people on a one-to-one basis and who resents the restrictions that come along with being First Lady.
Mrs. Bush doesn't like having to worry about every little thing she says and every move she makes. When the trip began in Japan, she backtracked on a statement she'd made weeks ago supporting a ban on AK-47 assault rifles and authorized her spokeswoman to tell the press that she would never again comment on controversial issues because her husband's opinions were the ones that mattered.
In China, Mrs. Bush's visit to the Forbidden City turned ugly when poor planning resulted in shoving matches between American press and Chinese security as throngs of people attempted to accompany her on her tour and hundreds of Chinese looked on in puzzlement. In a throne room called the Hall of Supreme Harmony, White House photographer Carol Powers was pushed into a door and sustained a dislocated jaw, reducing her to tears.
"She works for my husband," Mrs. Bush said ominously to her Chinese guide, asking him to "calm down" the Chinese security forces.
Mrs. Bush warned other photographers among her entourage of 100 guards, aides and media to be careful taking her picture, calling out, "I don't want to worry about you like I'm your mother."
(Powers, 35, was later reported to be feeling better. And hours afterward, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater reportedly confirmed that he and Powers were engaged.)
Normally the office of the First Lady sends an advance team ahead to the various sites she will visit and plans all the logistics to virtually every step. But Mrs. Bush so cherishes spontaneity that she did not send an advance team, allowing the U.S. Embassy to make suggestions.
When a reporter asked if her trip had been "just a little lightly advanced," she replied tersely, "You're just saying that to be rude because you know I don't want to be advanced. . . . I was reminded that when Betty Ford came here she was enormously advanced and the exact same thing happened. This is going to happen. That's just life."
She added very emphatically, "That's the way I want it."
Mrs. Bush showed herself to be the genuine article, a woman who pulls no verbal punches and refuses to be scripted. It often served her well on the trip, as when she walked into a tea at a restored 200-year-old mansion and kissed and hugged Sara Thomas and Huang Zhen, two old friends from China. She talked with each of the 33 women guests, smiling, raising her eyebrows and asking them questions about themselves.
She joked about her age at the Forbidden City, referring to a banquet that had once been held there for Chinese citizens over 60.
"That's my group, my crowd," she told her Chinese tour guide, museum director Yang Xin. "I would have come to the dinner."
In Tokyo, she was the perfect diplomat at her meeting in Tokyo with Mexican First Lady Cecilia Occeli de Salinas, making small talk about Mexican revolutionary war hero Emiliano Zapata and assuring Magdalenia Acosta, the wife of the Mexican ambassador to Japan, that her English was "very good, very good," placing her hand affectionately on her knee. She found time to buy Japanese paper dolls to bring back to her grandchildren and embroidered lipstick cases for her staff.
Light, Airy Schedule
Hoping to be a warm First Lady and keep a low profile at the same time, Mrs. Bush kept her foreign schedule light and airy, including personal interactions with leaders' wives and sentimental touring. She planned no separate public events during the 5-hour stopover in Seoul today.
But even with the time restrictions, her actions on this first overseas trip suggested a profile of a First Lady who sees her role as supporting but never overshadowing her husband and trying above all never to cause him embarrassment with comments that come forth too quickly or delve too deeply.
Mrs. Bush answered only a few questions from the press, talking mostly about how much she was enjoying her visit in China.
'Feel Good About China'
"I'm loving it, really loving it," she said in a courtyard of the Forbidden City. "I feel good about China. I'm not good about telling my feelings. We went to church today. We saw the ministers we saw every Sunday when we lived here. This was a very happy time in our life. I feel lucky to be able to be back here."
It was a sentiment she freely showed in her exploration of favorite sites.
Mrs. Bush greeted a familiar bronze statue of a kneeling elephant near the palace's rear door with a cry of delight: "That's my Republican elephant."
"Do you think it's good luck to touch it?" she asked Yang Xin.
When he nodded with a smile, she reached out and stroked the tusk.
Asked if she would be visiting China again, Mrs. Bush replied, "If he'll let me," referring to her husband.