Somebody handed George Bush a glass of white wine, and he politely sought to hand it on to Angolan anticommunist fighter Jonas Savimbi as the pair posed for photographers.
Savimbi declined. "What would you like -- a Coca-Cola?" asked the vice president.
That would be fine, Savimbi said, and the photo session continued at last night's meeting of the 13th annual Conservative Political Action Conference at the Washington Hilton.
Savimbi is in town to raise money and gain friends for his struggle against the Marxist Angolan government, and he was certainly among friends last night -- more than 1,000 conservatives of all stripes attending the conference.
"I was just asking him how he's doing," said the vice president. "He seemed to think he had a good day."
Former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick joined Bush and Savimbi at the photo session. "I support you when it's fashionable and when it's unfashionable," she said. "Now it's fashionable."
Nicaraguan contra leader Adolfo Calero and an Afghan freedom fighter, a lieutenant named Tahir Mayar, also joined the photo session. Then Bush and the others talked with a roomful of conservative leaders at a private reception preceding a large banquet.
The speeches at the banquet all kept the crowd applauding.
Kirkpatrick, introducing Savimbi, said, "Linguist, philosopher, poet, politician, warrior . . . Savimbi has admirers the world over, and I have long been one of them." She called him "one of the few authentic heroes of our time" and added that America should give "real assistance" to Savimbi, the contras "and all the other freedom fighters in the world."
Then she declared, "Real assistance means real weapons!" The crowd stood and went wild with applause as she enumerated the weapons: "Real helicopters . . . real ground-to-air missiles . . . Whether that help is overt or covert is a bureaucratic detail."
Kirkpatrick then presented Savimbi with an award from the American Conservative Union and the Young Americans for Freedom. As he accepted it, the crowd erupted into chants of U-NI-TA! U-NI-TA!, the acronym for the National Union for Total Independence of Angola, which is headed by Savimbi. Bush, who was the featured speaker, received vigorous applause for a speech that was strong on national security issues and also full of praise for Savimbi and others who are "willing to fight and die" for freedom.
The vice president also sought to emphasize his own conservative credentials, pointing out, among other things, that he was a Goldwater delegate at the 1964 Republican convention.
Savimbi spoke last. In a clear, richly accented voice, he began by offering sympathy over the Challenger tragedy "and also we offer our prayers for those who have lost their loved ones."
The guerrilla leader moved on to his nearly three decades of fighting and his hopes for the future. "I want that Angola should be free, and that the Angolans should be given a chance to decide by themselves," he said. He drew a laugh when he said he was amazed to address such a distinguished gathering and to share the podium with Bush, since "I have been following his career for a long time, from afar, from the boosh!"
Answering his critics, he declared, "I am not a communist. I am a Christian. I am a Protestant." This drew applause, and he went on to say, "I don't approve of apartheid. How can I, as a black leader, approve of apartheid? . . . On one side I am branded as a communist, on the other side I am a puppet of South Africa!"
Savimbi was made to feel welcome all night.
At the reception, Richard A. Viguerie, the conservative fundraiser, came up smiling and bowed to Savimbi. "My honor, my pleasure!" he said. They shook hands.
"I think it's going well," said Savimbi. "What we are going to get in assistance , we don't know. We have put in our request."
Savimbi lives in jungle camps with his troops. Last night he said that the government is expected to launch a spring offensive against him when the dry season begins in May or June.
"We have to be ready, with or without help," he said.
Conservative columnist George Will was not at the reception, which may have been a relief to Bush. Will wrote a column this week, published in The Washington Post and other papers, that was highly critical of the vice president over a speech in New York in which he had attacked Gov. Mario Cuomo.
What is it like, when you are vice president hoping to be president, to have Will attack you as a "lapdog" who lies and speaks "gibberish" and "rot" in a "smarmy" way?
"I have no comment," said Bush.
Then he thought again. "I guess," he said, "I have to work harder to win his support. I have to put him down as doubtful right now."
At the reception, Scott Stanley, editor of the Conservative Digest, said a poll of his readers on possible presidential candidates shows that "the vice president is doing very well, not leading, but around 18 or 19 percent . . . Dr. Kirkpatrick is way out front -- 36 or 37 percent."
When Stanley went up to chat with Kirkpatrick, the subject came up but she pooh-poohed it. "It's not scientifically significant," she said.
But she added, "I won't pretend not to enjoy this conversation."