DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA, NOV. 22 -- President Bush didn't come to Saudi Arabia with any guns or missiles today, but he had a much more effective secret weapon -- Barbara Bush.
For homesick American troops celebrating Thanksgiving just 80 miles from the Kuwaiti border, she was everybody's missing Mom whose smile sent spirits soaring.
Wearing her Desert Shield chic khaki slacks, camouflage jacket, white jogging shoes and trademark pearl earrings, she posed for pictures so many times that she joked to one soldier, "You look familiar to me. Did we just do this a minute ago?"
At times her arms encircled waists with the speed of a propeller. "I don't know whose camera I'm looking at," she teasingly complained.
And of the autographs she gave, she chided one young Marine, "I have a feeling I'm signing checkbooks."
In a day that took the Bushes and their entourage from Jiddah on the Red Sea to Dhahran on the Persian Gulf, the First Couple ate two holiday turkey dinners and talked to hundreds of men and women in two encampments at secret locations in the desert and on a U.S. ship in the gulf. Mrs. Bush isn't the only First Lady to visit American troops abroad. Eleanor Roosevelt went to the South Pacific in 1943, and Pat Nixon went with President Nixon to Vietnam in 1969.
At one camp today, the president introduced Mrs. Bush to several thousand Marines as "Millie's mom." It was no throwaway line. Throughout the day she was besieged with questions about her English springer spaniel.
"It's clear to me that Millie is the most popular member of the family," she said.
She ate sparingly of the turkey and trimmings and ignored the pie completely -- "That's because cameras were on me," she said later.
She and Bush dined first with an Army tactical unit and later with U.S. Marines and British Desert Rats, all of them hunkered down in the sandy wastelands. "I think it's going to be a sandy turkey," she told an officer, and when he assured her it wouldn't be, she in turn assured him that "I love sand."
The Marine One helicopter carried the Bushes to their destinations, including the amphibious ship USS Nassau. Throughout the president's speeches, Secret Service helicopters circled above. The press tagged along in government helicopters equipped with 50-caliber machine guns. .
The Bushes, like reporters, had been coached in the use of gas masks en route to Dhahran from Jiddah. Reporters were ordered to carry theirs at all times, and did. The Bushes, however, did not.
Camouflage netting shrouded military equipment at U.S. encampments, but the presence of M-1 tanks in the background erased any doubt that the props were real rather than part of a Kennedy Center stage set.
M-16 and M-203 rifles were like extra appendages. "I rarely hug guns," Mrs. Bush said, flinching when she found one over the arm of one Marine.
Bolts and magazines had been removed and carefully pocketed for the time being. "When they leave we'll put them back," said Army Pvt. Tadd Kellett, a Canadian American from Saskatchewan.
At a table behind him, Barbara Bush sat with a group of "best" soldiers from various units. They talked about kids and dogs (theirs as well as hers), and she promised to call relatives.
But she also gave them a glimpse of the other life she leads. She told them about the dinner she attended with the royal women of the House of Saud. The dresses, she said, were "the most beautiful you ever saw." Nobody knew quite what to say to that.
Her own ensemble drew raves at times. "We love your designer outfit," Air Force Major C.J. Hernandez told her at the Dhahran airport. "I love it too," she replied.
"I admire her very much," said E-4 Kelly Fischer, of El Paso, after a picture-taking embrace. "In fact, I wanted to see her more than I wanted to see the president. That's terrible to say."
Military hats, pictures of other people's dogs and kids and paper napkins illustrated with turkeys instantly became historic keepsakes with the addition of her signature.
"This is going home right now," vowed Lance Cpl. Alan Zimmerman, 21, of Statesville, N.C., tucking his hat in his belt.
She found her day "pretty exciting ... and pretty moving."
Desert Shield's commander, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, watched her work the crowd. The Bushes' visit was "wonderful for the troops" and while he thought they probably all wanted to be there, they also knew they couldn't.
"But these kids here are so proud to be here. Doesn't it make you want to cry? It makes me want to cry. But you see those kids? They're proud Americans," he told a reporter.
Bush had drawn applause a few minutes earlier with his promise that "no American will be kept in the gulf a single day longer than necessary. But we won't pull punches. We are not here on some exercise. This is a real-world situation. And we're not walking away until our mission is done."
"I think it tells them why they're here," said Schwarzkopf. "But I think they already know... . I think that every one of these fellows one way or another can tell you why they're here. What they want to know is when they're going to get to go home. That's the question I get all the time."
And when are they?
"When the job's done," Schwarzkopf replied.
Most of the military seemed buoyed by the Bushes' visit and called it a "morale booster," but there were varying degrees of opinion about what happens next. Lance Cpl. Pete Wright, of San Antonio, said "It's time someone stopped" Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. First Lt. Jonathan Lested, of Evansville, Ill., chimed in with "If we don't stop him, he could have nuclear weapons in a few years."
Others weren't as approving of Bush's actions. Lance Cpl. Gabriel EtsHokin said he felt Bush had been in the CIA too long and was "a master at shadow and deception." He feared that Bush would not give the American people "any chance to make the decision" about war. Another Marine standing nearby said, "I'm thankful that George came out here," and he stalked off.
Sgt. Timson Carrier, of Eunice, La., offered this summation of the Bushes' Thanksgiving trek: "I think it is great. Hey, it really means a lot to me that the president is here when he could be home with his family... . I want to hear him say, 'This is all over with and let's go home.' "