By David Greene
Latin America Trip Not Entirely Business as Usual
March 14, 2007 · President Bush is wrapping up a week-long tour of five Latin American countries with his last stop in Mexico. NPR White House Correspondent David Greene has been following the president, and covering the news of the trip. Greene has also been taking note of some of the stranger moments along the way — and he wanted to offer a few observations.
Covering the commander in chief is not always the sexiest job. Except, apparently, when you're in Brazil. That country's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, said that when it comes to intense, ongoing trade talks, he just wants to find that spot where everyone's satisfied.
"We're moving on solid ground to find a chance for the so-called G-point," Silva said.
That was the English translation for Brazil's leader, who has been known to spice up a news conference. Brazil was President Bush's first stop. And evidently, he was pretty hungry after the trip down.
"So, Mr. President, it has been a great first meeting here," Bush said. "I appreciate the fact that you're about to buy me lunch. I'm kind of hungry. Looking forward to eating some of that good Brazilian food."
But he may not have been quite satisfied with the Brazilian fare, because when he got to Uruguay, and met up with the president there, Mr. Bush still seemed a little peckish.
"I appreciate your willingness to cook some Uruguayan beef," he said. "You've told me all along how good it is, and after we answer a few questions, we're about to find out."
Uruguay, get ready. The White House chef might be calling soon to get some of your food on the menu.
"It turns out Uruguay produces a fantastic blueberry," Mr. Bush said later.
But nothing seemed to excite the president as much as the lettuce in Guatemala. Mr. Bush spent time in a small village, loading crates of lettuce onto a truck. He proclaimed this stop one of the special moments of his entire presidency.
"It was really, really fun," he said.
Maybe the president was day-dreaming about the lettuce when he came to talk to reporters. Surely, he didn't mean to say this.
"The American people would have been incredibly proud of watching our military folks dispense with basic health care needs to people who needed help," Bush said.
Clearly he meant that the U.S. military is offering health care. Because he said if Guatemalans, for example, needed eye glasses, they might be able to turn to U.S. military personnel.
"Or you have a perpetual tooth ache and somebody shows up, in this case in military uniforms, and says, how can I help," he said.
But there were times on this trip when Mr. Bush seemed a little cranky. At another stop, he was talking about Iraq, and a regional conference on how to stabilize it. And he didn't exactly praise the U.S. officials who were there. He said for the next conference, he's sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"In other words, it's a step up in — I'm not dissing anybody, but it's a step up in the pay grade, let's put it that way," he said.
Mr. Bush was also able to turn to his usual punching bag — the press. All week, reporters kept asking him about Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's leader, who was trying to upstage Mr. Bush during his visit. The president refused to answer. He wouldn't once say Chavez's name in public. White House officials kept telling reporters they were making too big a deal out of Chavez, and should be focusing on Mr. Bush's agenda. And at one point Mr. Bush declared: "We welcome a free press — most of the time."
In fact, in a session with reporters in Guatemala, Mr. Bush tried to bring things to an abrupt close. But maybe that's because something else was on his mind.
"This will be your last question, Mr. President, and then we can start thinking about dinner, la cena," Bush said. "Que vamos a comer?"
A television reporter was ready to ask that last question. But she was forced to just stand there. The president of Guatemala, Oscar Berger, took Mr. Bush's comment about dinner to mean he wanted to hear about the menu, right there, in the middle of the press conference.
"Tortillas," Berger said.
"Tortillas? Que bueno," Bush replied.
Even the translator jumped in to help.
"We have tortillas with guacamole and beans," the translator said.
"Con el muerso, hoy," Bush said.(I think that last bit should have been transcribed, "con almuerzo hoy.")