Bush ‘deadly earnest’ about civility


WILLIAMSBURG, Va., Reuters

President George W. Bush on Friday rallied fellow Republicans and reached out to Democrats, sending the message he was “deadly earnest” about changing the tenor of political debate in Congress.

In a day of presidential firsts, Bush broke new ground by visiting the private winter retreat of Senate Democrats in Washington, took his inaugural flight on Marine One since being sworn in 13 days ago and prepared for his first meeting with a foreign leader, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, on Monday.

As part of his campaign to end the partisan rancor that was exacerbated by the divisiveness of the disputed Nov. 7 election, Bush also will drop in on House Democrats at their caucus in Pennsylvania on Sunday.

“It gives me a chance to say how deadly earnest I am about using my position as your president to change the tone in the nation’s capital,” Bush told congressional Republicans at their retreat in Williamsburg on Friday.

“And I pledge to you that these first 14 days in office, or near 14 days in office, the tone set in the first 14 days will be a consistent tone and however long I happen to be fortunate enough to be your president,” he said.

The message was the same for Democrats. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush told them that although some might think him “naive,” he was “intent” on bringing civility to the political discourse in Washington.

Fleischer said none of the Democratic senators, 42 of whom voted against Bush’s choice of John Ashcroft for attorney general on Thursday, brought up the controversial Cabinet nomination.

House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas said Bush told members during a private session in Williamsburg to seek no retribution against Democrats for the Ashcroft vote.

DeLay quoted Bush as saying, “Get over it guys. Let’s not hold any hard feeling. Ashcroft was confirmed. I didn’t like the way he was treated. Ashcroft didn’t like the way he was treated. But so what? Let’s move on.”

Bush, who has invited about 160 members of Congress — half of them Democrats — to the White House in his first two weeks in office, said his visit to the Democratic retreats, the first by a Republican leader, provided him with an opportunity “to set a positive tone.”

Democrats gave Bush high marks for his efforts to reach out, but struck a wait-and-see attitude on whether it would translate into compromise on tax cuts, prescription drug benefits, Social Security reform and other issues.

“The importance of this was not the details, nor the substance, as much as the symbolism of him reaching out, saying, ‘I want to work with you folks and that’s why I’m here,’” Democratic Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana told reporters. “It’s him coming over to meet in our territory.”

A helicopter ride away in Williamsburg, Virginia, Bush, wearing a suit and tie, found himself on friendly ground among casually dressed Republican lawmakers and their families sitting down to lunch at a resort on the outskirts of the restored colonial village.

“I like to give short speeches and I’m always on time,” Bush said. “But evidently I didn’t get the dress code.”

The president left for Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland where he will spend the weekend preparing for his meeting with Chretien.