Bush Gives an Early Thanks

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By BEN FELLER
The Associated Press
Monday, November 19, 2007; 7:21 PM

CHARLES CITY, Va. -- President Bush on Monday honored acts of everyday decency and supreme sacrifice, part of a Thanksgiving tribute like none he had done before.

Bush devoted his day to people who, as he put it, serve a cause larger than themselves _ police, firefighters, teachers and citizens who become heroes in times of crisis.

He singled out three people for recognition: Jeremy Hernandez, who rescued children from a school bus at the scene of a massive bridge collapse in Minneapolis; Doris Hicks, an inspirational school principal in New Orleans' devastated Ninth Ward; and Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor who died trying to save his students during the Virginia Tech massacre.

"These stories remind us that our nation's greatest strength is the decency and compassion of our people," Bush said at Berkeley Plantation, where the three-sided tent set up for his speech offered a sweeping backdrop of the James River.

"As we count our many blessings, I encourage all Americans to show their thanks by giving back," said Bush, who also toured a food bank that serves a huge swath of Virginia.

This is not how the White House usually hails Thanksgiving. Never in his presidency had Bush devoted a speech to the holiday, let alone hours of choreographed travel.

The typical tribute is a proclamation, a radio address and a turkey pardon in the Rose Garden _ a ceremony that has produced its share of silly moments. This time, Bush opted for events that allowed him, in a very public way, to honor those who have made a mark on him.

The soft theme of the day's events also aimed to put Bush in a positive light at a time when the country is in a disapproving mood, soured by war and Washington politics. There was not a single biting mention of Congress in his speech, a rarity for Bush these days.

His speech was brisk; it ran just over 11 minutes. In celebrating the nation's founding, he did not gloss over that it came at a terrible cost to Native Americans, and to slaves who were held in bondage at plantations such as the one where he spoke.

"Today, we're grateful to live in a more perfect union," Bush said. "Yet our society still faces divisions that hold us back. These divisions have roots in the bitter experiences of our past _ and have no place in America's future."

Bush stopped by a Richmond, Va., food bank, a former tobacco warehouse that has been converted into a highly organized distribution center that sends millions of pounds of groceries to needy families each year. The visit to the Central Virginia Foodbank underscored a quiet problem _ 35 million people in this country went hungry in 2006.

The president walked by stacks of peanut butter, green beans and soup, then loaded a few crates of oranges, potatoes and macaroni and cheese onto a rolling cart. "C'mon man, let's go," he cheerfully told Mike Hennigan, a local pastor, as the two worked together.

At Berkeley Plantation, Bush got a little history lesson.

The site claims America's first official Thanksgiving in 1619, when a group of British settlers knelt in prayer of thanks for a healthy arrival across the Atlantic. Their proclamation of thanks is carved into the "Thanksgiving Shrine" that Bush visited.

Of course, Plymouth, Mass., is best known as the home of Thanksgiving, as the place where Pilgrims and Indians celebrated the autumn harvest with a feast in 1621.

Bush took care not to explicitly take sides in that debate, though his hosts seemed to view his presence as all but an endorsement. The president did call the plantation a "historic treasure" with a "role in this important holiday" and gave a detailed recounting of Berkeley's historic claim.

"The good folks here say that the founders of Berkeley held their celebration before the Pilgrims had even left port," the president said to much applause. "As you can imagine, this version of events is not very popular up North."

As for the presidential turkey pardon, not to worry. Bush gets to that on Tuesday.


© 2007 The Associated Press

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