Bush on Charm Offensive at Democratic Retreat

W A S H I N G T O N, Feb. 2, 2001 -- What is a Republican president doing meeting behind closed doors with 50 Democratic senators? It's only the latest maneuver in George W. Bush's "charm offensive."

This morning, Bush became the first president to attend a private policy retreat of the opposing party, mingling for half an hour with Senate Democrats as they gathered at the Library of Congress for their ritual strategy session.

‘Boy, He's Really Good’

One Democratic source present at the meeting described Bush as "charming" and "funny" as he shook hands and engaged in lighthearted banter with the group. In brief remarks, Bush said he "loved" being president and was "honored" to have been elected, conceding that he did not win the contest in a landslide. He also spoke about his close friendship and working relationship as Texas governor with Bob Bullock, the late Democratic lieutenant governor.

"Boy, he's really good," the source said.

Bush struck a similarly bipartisan tone in his address to a joint GOP House and Senate retreat in Williamsburg, Va., this afternoon. The president told his fellow Republicans he was "deadly earnest" about using his position "to say to America that we'll have our disagreements, we'll fight over principle and we'll argue over detail, but we'll do so in a way that respects one another."

"It's so important for us as leaders … to understand that the way the process is conducted can send a good or bad tone for America," Bush said.

Just a day earlier, 42 of the attendees of the Democratic get-together had delivered what one senator called "a shot across the bow" of the new administration by voting against the president's nominee for attorney general, conservative former Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo.

But only hours after the Senate voted to confirm Ashcroft, capping weeks of bitterly partisan debate over his nomination, Bush had Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. — the keeper of the liberal flame and Ashcroft's most vocal critic — over to the White House for dinner and a screening of Thirteen Days, the film adaptation of the late Robert F. Kennedy's book chronicling the Cuban missile crisis.

Following the bipartisan social session, Kennedy's son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., who was also in attendance, said he was impressed by the "genuine approach" taken by Bush, the man he once called a "wing nut" during the heat of the presidential campaign.

"He said that he didn't expect us to get along on many things, but he said that we may be able to get along on some things, and I feel the same way," Patrick Kennedy said. "I thought that was very impressive and very real and I was impressed by his genuine approach."

On Sunday, Bush is set to appear at the House Democratic retreat in Nimicolon, Pa.

‘Hug-a-Democrat-a-Day’ Strategy

White House aides say the unprecedented forays into enemy territory are an effort to make good on Bush's campaign trail promise to reduce the partisan rancor so prevalent in the nation's capital in recent years.

"The president … hopes that by going to the retreats of the other party — as well, of course, as his own party — that people across the country will see our government works together well," Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters. "It's part of establishing a new tone in Washington."

In his first two weeks in office, Bush has already invited some 150 members of Congress, many of them Democrats, over to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue for private meetings. Some have taken to calling the president's high-profile efforts to court lawmakers from across the aisle the "hug-a-Democrat-a-day" strategy.

"In the wake of a very close election, [the president] thought it was a signal to all the politicians that they needed to work together," said Fleischer, "that they needed to rise above the narrow margin and focus less on bickering and more on working."

With the Senate evenly divided and Republicans holding only a four-seat majority in the House, Bush will need a little help from the other side of the aisle if he hopes to make progress on his legislative agenda. Although sharp differences remain between Bush and congressional Democrats over virtually every item on that agenda — including education, tax relief and Medicare and Social Security reform — political analysts say the president's early efforts to court members of the other party may pay off in the long run.

"Trust remains the coin of the realm in Washington," says David Gergen, who served as an adviser to presidents Clinton and Reagan. "If Democrats come to believe they can trust George Bush's word and that his smile is genuine, they're going to be much more willing to work with him on those issues where they can find common ground."

ABCNEWS' Ann Compton and Linda Douglass contributed to this report.