TRIP NOTEBOOK: Beijing a Bush family homecoming
BEIJING (AP) For one old China hand, the Beijing Olympics are a special homecoming.
Oh, and his son - the leader of the free world - thinks it's pretty cool to be here with him.
"This has got to be a historic moment," President Bush marveled as he opened a new U.S. Embassy in the Chinese capital with his father, former President George H.W. Bush.
The elder Bush, part of the official U.S. delegation, arrived in what was then Peking in October 1974 to open America's first diplomatic mission since President Nixon's surprise overture to China. Bush had been dispatched by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was also at Friday's ceremony.
Bush, 84, reminisced about the bicycle-mad city he came to know well and remarked upon its dramatic transformation in the three decades since. Seeing it decked out for the Olympics, Bush declared, "There can be no question China has achieved something truly special."
The embassy exemplifies the change. The compound is a sprawling $434 million complex with 500,000 square feet of office space.
The former president said he recently discovered his old office had been occupied by press office translators. His wife, Barbara, joked, "You mean they got someone in your office who can speak the language?" Bush says when the two took Chinese lessons together, "She simply refused to follow the sacred 'No laughing' rule as I spoke."
But the former first lady wasn't alone in the ribbing.
Her son noted China's ancient civilization pioneered astronomy and engineering and is credited with inventing the parachute, "something for which the 41st president is very grateful." That drew knowing laughter from family and friends. Bush's father, a former Navy bomber pilot, has made several skydiving jumps, including one on his 80th birthday.
Bush got into a western groove in the Far East. Country-western, that is.
After dedicating the embassy, Bush rocked in his chair in time to music performed by The Gatlin Brothers. He even got a little emotional, as the musicians played a tribute to America's influence in the world.
It was a contrast of two cultures. Also performing along with the Gatlin Brothers were young Chinese women in satin-red dresses. They swayed in synchronized moves as they pounded drums with a flourish.
The president got a taste of the Olympics the last time he was in China - three years ago - by going on a dusty, hourlong bike ride with hopefuls for China's Olympic mountain biking team on the country's Olympic mountain bike course.
This time in Beijing, he said, he briefly considered actually entering Olympic bike events. Bush is considered a skilled and fit rider in his sport of choice, especially for a man of his age. Still, he was joking, of course.
And in case that was in doubt, Bush's wife, Laura, set him straight.
"They don't give any medals for last place," he said she reminded him.
Bush gave the U.S. Olympic team a last-minute pep talk.
"Go for it. Give it all you've got," the president told the athletes, wearing blue blazers, white trousers and white caps, just before they went to march in the opening ceremonies.
The setting was the Olympic fencing venue. After a few words of encouragement, Bush spent more than an hour shaking hands and posing for pictures as each of the squads waited its turn for a chat.
Women's volleyball players got high fives, boxers a pose with fists clenched. With the baseball team, the former baseball owner sighed and said, "Man, I love this sport."
Bush's father lingered at the arena's edge doing his own glad-handing. The president's daughter Barbara beamed when she saw the basketball team. She dashed in to get a picture with star LeBron James, his arm around her waist.
Bush plans to watch them play host China on Sunday night. "It's gonna be great," James told reporters.