Politics, pageantry blend for Bush at Olympics

August 08, 2008

BEIJING (AP) -- President Bush reveled in the spectacular opening moments of the Olympics on Friday, but a burgeoning crisis stole some of his attention as Russia and Georgia neared the brink of all-out war.

Buoyant from his pep talk to U.S. athletes, Bush got a coveted spot inside China's National Stadium and cheered their entrance to an extravagant opening ceremony. "Go for it! Give it all you've got!" the president had urged America's competitors. Bush, a big sports fan, plans to spend much of the weekend watching basketball, swimming and other competitions.

A real-world standoff, though, served as a reminder that the president is never off duty.

Russia sent columns of tanks and reportedly bombed Georgian air bases Friday after Georgia launched a major military offensive Friday to retake the breakaway province of South Ossetia. The fast-changing hostilities threaten to ignite a broader conflict in the region.

Bush got regular updates on the crisis and spoke about it with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as the two happened to be together for an Olympic luncheon of world leaders.


"We will continue to be engaged," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in Beijing as the United States called for an immediate cease-fire and sent an envoy to the region.

The president's open agenda on Saturday reflects his intention to soak in the Olympics and enjoy some family time. His only official event is a meeting with corporate sponsors in the late afternoon.

Bush was hoping to get in a mountain bike ride on Saturday. He still speaks fondly of his vigorous ride in Beijing in 2005 with contenders for China's Olympic biking team. First lady Laura Bush was breaking off Saturday to tour the sprawling, ancient Forbidden City.

The pace harkened back to the promise Bush made before the trip about his own itinerary.

"I'm pretty relaxed about it," he said. "Not every single minute of every day has to be totally organized. I'll be with a lot of my family, and they're fun to hang around with."

Those family members include his daughter Barbara, brother Marvin, sister Doro, and his dad, former President Bush, who introduced him to China as a former envoy to the country in the 1970s.

Father and son stood with each other at the new U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Friday, a striking tableau of two presidents who spoke of U.S.-China relations -- and their own.

"I am so very proud of him," the former president said. President Bush said, "It is quite an honor to be introduced by your dad."

Being at the Olympics has one side effect for Bush -- later bed times.

Some big events don't even start by the time Bush would normally be sleeping. He plans to attend a U.S.-China basketball game, for example, that tips off after 10 p.m. local time.

The president's enthusiasm for the games comes up at every event. He greeted the U.S. team at the Olympic fencing center and seemed almost at a loss of words.

"I wasn't exactly sure what to say to you, except to start with, God, I love our country and I love what we stand for. And I love being with you," Bush said.

His daughter Barbara lit up when she saw the U.S. basketball team. She dashed in to get a picture with NBA star LeBron James' arm around her waist.

In the highly anticipated opening ceremony, Bush and the first lady stood and waved tiny U.S. flags as the nearly 600-strong U.S. team paraded into National Stadium.

The U.S. athletes followed Syria onto the track, where they walked over pads doused in paint, leaving multicolored streaks of footprints. They proudly waved at the Bushes.

The president described the ceremony as "spectacular and lots of fun," Perino said.

Bush's most official business comes Sunday in meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other leaders of the country.

He will also attend church and speak about religious freedom, a sensitive matter in China, where the government allows worship only in officially approved churches.

Bush used the occasion of the embassy ribbon-cutting to praise China's contributions to society and embrace its relationship with the United States.

But on China's turf on the opening day of its grand Olympic affair, Bush also took the opportunity to chide the country's government to allow free speech and worship.

"Candor is most effective where nations have built a relationship of respect and trust," Bush said. "I've worked hard to build that respect and trust. I appreciate the Chinese leadership that have worked hard to build that respect and trust."

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