President Bush visited Mount Vernon yesterday to pay tribute to "the first George W." and compared the Revolutionary War to the Iraq war in their pursuit of freedom.
Bush made his first visit as president to George Washington's home on the holiday marking the first president's birthday. Bush said he had visited Mount Vernon with his grandmother as "a little fellow from Midland, Texas," drawing appreciative laughs from a chilly crowd of several hundred tourists, history buffs and schoolchildren who had the day off.
The president and first lady Laura Bush laid a red, white and blue wreath at Washington's tomb, commemorating the 275th anniversary of his birth on Feb. 22, 1732. The presidential party took a helicopter in and out of the Mount Vernon estate in southern Fairfax County, completing the visit in less than an hour.
Bush's remarks consisted mainly of a reflection on Washington's life and impact on the United States, with brief allusions to today's war.
"America's path to freedom was long, and it was hard," Bush said. "And the outcome was really never certain. . . . In the end, General Washington understood that the Revolutionary War was a test of wills, and his will was unbreakable."
In the only direct analogy to Iraq, the president said, "Today, we're fighting a new war to defend our liberty and our people and our way of life. And as we work to advance the cause of freedom around the world, we remember that the father of our country believed that the freedoms we secured in our revolution were not meant for Americans alone. He once wrote, 'My best wishes are irresistibly excited whensoever in any country I see an oppressed nation unfurl the banners of freedom.' "
Some of those who watched the speech under crystal skies just happened to visit Mount Vernon the day the president was there, and others had planned to attend the speech. Ellen Georgi, a history teacher from Frederick, was in the latter group. She brought her family to make them "suffer through my love of history." She said the president "gave a very good speech about George Washington and morality as the compass of our country."
About 250 high school students from Presidential Classroom, an education program for students across the country, were bused in from Georgetown thinking they were just sightseeing, part of an itinerary that also included the Jefferson Memorial and Union Station yesterday. Instead, they stood just a hundred feet from the current president.
"It was great," said Paula Jernigan, 18, from Suches, Ga. "It was moving how [Bush] talked about George Washington, how he was a great president. It reminds our country what it is that makes us great."