BEN FELLER Associated Press Writer CHARLES CITY, Va. (AP)
A reflective President Bush on Monday honored acts of everyday decency and supreme sacrifice, and called on Americans to give back to their communities. In his first speech dedicated to Thanksgiving, Bush said the holiday is a time to hail those who serve causes larger than themselves. He cited police, firefighters, teachers and religious leaders as examples. “Our nation’s greatest strength is the decency and compassion of our people,” Bush told hundreds gathered in an open-air tent at a plantation that s ta ke s a c l a I'm t o t h e f i r s t Thanksgiving. “As we count our many blessings, I encourage all Americans to show their thanks by giving back.” Pr e s i d e n t s t e n d t o h o n o r Thanksgiving with routine proclamations, radio addresses that always sound the same, and pardons for a couple of lucky turkeys. Bush elevated it a bit on Monday. First he stopped by a Richmond, Va., food bank, a former tobacco warehouse that has been converted into a highly organized distribution center that sends millions of pounds of groceries to needy families each year. The visit to the Central Virginia Foodbank underscored a quiet problem 35 million people in this country went hungry in 2006. Bush walked by stacks of peanut butter, green beans and soup, then loaded a few crates of oranges, potatoes and macaroni and cheese onto a rolling cart. “C’mon man, let’s go,” he cheerfully told Mike Hennigan, a local pastor, as the two worked together. Later, he delivered remarks on the nation’s giving spirit at Berkeley Plantation, in a tent overlooking the James River. Never in his presidency has he devoted a whole speech to the holiday, let alone several hours of choreographed travel. The events allow Bush, in a very public way, to thank people who made an impression on him for acts of compassion. Aides say it is part of the job he truly enjoys and that Bush wanted to pay tribute to them. The soft theme of the day’s events also aim to put Bush in a positive light at a time when the country is in a disapproving mood, soured by war and Washington politics. Berkeley Plantation says it is the site of America’s first official Thanksgiving in 1619, when a group of British settlers knelt in prayer of thanks for a healthy arrival across the Atlantic. Their proclamation of t h a n k s i s c a r v e d i n t o t h e “Thanksgiving Shrine” that Bush visited. Of course, Plymouth, Mass., is best known as the home of Thanksgiving, as the place where Pilgrims and Indians celebrated the autumn harvest with a feast in 1621. Bush took care not to explicitly take sides in that debate, though his hosts seemed to view his presence as all but an endorsement. The president did call the plantation a “historic treasure” with a “role in this important holiday” and gave a detailed recounting of Berkeley’s historic claim. “The good folks here say that the founders of Berkeley held their celebration before the Pilgrims had even left port,” the president said to much applause. “As you can imagine, this version of events is not very popular up North.” As for the presidential turkey pardon, that is still on Bush’s agenda. It happens Tuesday.