Monday, February 19, 2007
The President of the United States traveled to Mount Vernon on the federal holiday commemorating George Washington's 275th birthday, marking the first time a sitting president made formal remarks at Mount Vernon in 25 years.
On February 19, 2007, President and Mrs. Bush arrived by helicopter a little before 10 a.m., and proceeded immediately to George Washington's Tomb, where they placed a wreath in memory of the nation's first president. The solemn wreathlaying ceremony lasted less than five minutes. It featured a brief prayer by a military chaplain and a ceremonial performance of taps.
A small motorcade then transported the President and First Lady to the west front of the Mansion. Time would not allow for a full tour of Washington's home, but the presidential party did view most of the first floor before signing the official Mount Vernon guestbook.
A stage outfitted with patriotic bunting was the President's final stop. After a brief but enthusiastic introduction by Gay Hart Gaines, Regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, the President delivered prepared remarks about continuing legacies of George Washington. President Bush began by recalling that his first visit to Mount Vernon took place when his grandmother traveled with him from Midland, Texas. He noted that Mount Vernon has always been a "good place for families," and that he had escorted his own daughters to the estate when they were youngsters.
The President praised Washington as a soldier, statesman, and "champion of liberty."
With the advantage of hindsight, it is easy to take George Washington's successes for granted and to assume that all those events were destined to unfold as they did... Well, the truth is far different. America's path to freedom was long and it was hard. And the outcome was really never certain. Honoring George Washington's life requires us to remember the many challenges that he overcame, and the fact that American history would have turned out very differently without his steady leadership.
President Bush noted that "the story of George Washington continues to bring Americans together. We find the best of America in his spirit, and our highest hopes for ourselves in his character." The warmth of the President's remarks helped to make up for a chilly environment somewhat reminiscent of Valley Forge. Much of the Mount Vernon estate was still covered with ice and snow, and sub-freezing temperatures forced the cancellation of performances by the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, as well as the Commander in Chief's Guard. But the public was not deterred - before the day was over, some 10,000 people had passed through the Texas Gate.
Many guests had clearly come for a glimpse of the President, and they were not disappointed. When the formal program was over, both President and Mrs. Bush left the stage to greet members of the audience, despite the worried stares of secret service agents. Because the holiday celebrating George Washington's Birthday is the only day of the year when admission to Mount Vernon is complimentary, the estate tends to attract a number of visitors who share a quality with George Washington himself - an admirable frugality. Some were surprised to discover that the President was on the property and extended their stays to take advantage of the opportunity.
Among those present were students who traveled to Mount Vernon from a small town in Texas not far from the President's ranch. They cheered just a little louder than the rest of the assembled crowd, and the President was visibly appreciative.
Although it was the President's first visit to Mount Vernon since being elected in 2000, the occasion marked Mrs. Bush's third trip in six years.
When President Bush's father, George H. W. Bush, served as president, he escorted King Hussein of Jordan to Mount Vernon in April 1989.
Because the visit was not announced to the public in advance, the security level was reasonably relaxed. The presidential party toured the Mansion in about 20 minutes and then walked to the wharf, where a government boat was waiting to whisk the international leaders back to Washington.
The younger President Bush, however, was constantly surrounded by security agents, and about half of the Mount Vernon estate needed to remain off limits to the public until the President's departure. Magnetometers were placed at all entry points to the estate, and well-trained canines became a familiar sight during the lock-down period before President Bush's arrival.
Still, the President's whirlwind visit came off without incident, and the media coverage was widespread and generally positive. "The White House staff members were extremely competent and cooperative, and everyone at Mount Vernon felt they were involved with a truly historic occasion," noted Executive Director James Rees. "We only wish that sitting presidents would come to Mount Vernon more often, like they tended to do in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These visits remind people that it all began with Washington, and that we could not have gotten off to a better or faster start."