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Friday, November 23, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Hit: Barbara Bush Wows The Troops

Washington Post

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia - President Bush didn't come to Saudi Arabia with any guns or missiles, but he had a much more effective secret weapon: Barbara Bush.

For homesick American troops celebrating Thanksgiving just 80 miles from the Kuwaiti border, she was everybody's missing Mom whose smile sent spirits soaring.

Wearing her Desert Shield chic khaki slacks, camouflage jacket, white jogging shoes and trademark pearl earrings, she posed for pictures so many times that she joked to one soldier, ``You look familiar to me. Did we just do this a minute ago?''

At times her arms encircled waists with the speed of a propeller. ``I don't know whose camera I'm looking at,'' she teasingly complained.

And of the autographs she gave, she chided one young Marine, ``I have a feeling I'm signing checkbooks.''

In a day that took the Bushes and their entourage from Jiddah on the Red Sea to Dhahran on the Persian Gulf, the First Couple ate two holiday turkey dinners and talked to hundreds of men and women in two encampments at secret locations in the desert and on a U.S. ship in the Gulf.

Mrs. Bush isn't the only First Lady to visit American troops abroad. Eleanor Roosevelt went to the South Pacific in 1943, and Pat Nixon went with President Nixon to Vietnam in 1969.

At one camp, the president introduced Mrs. Bush to several thousand Marines as ``Millie's Mom.'' It was no throwaway line. Throughout the day she was besieged with questions about her English springer spaniel.

``It's clear to me that Millie is the most popular member of the family,'' she said.

She ate sparingly of the turkey and trimmings and ignored the pie completely - ``That's because cameras were on me,'' she said later. She and Bush dined first with an Army tactical unit and later with U.S. Marines and British Desert Rats, all of them hunkered down in the sandy wastelands. ``I think it's going to be a sandy turkey,'' she told an officer, and when he assured her it wouldn't be, she in turn assured him that ``I love sand.''

Camouflage netting shrouded military equipment but the presence of M-1 tanks in the background erased any doubt that the props were real.

M-16 and M-203 rifles were like extra appendages. ``I rarely hug guns,'' Mrs. Bush said, flinching when she found one over the arm of one Marine. ``You know their guns are all plastic,'' she added. Bolts and magazines had been removed and carefully pocketed for the visit.

Mrs. Bush's ensemble drew raves at times. ``We love your designer outfit,'' Air Force Major C.J. Hernandez told her at Dhahran airport. ``I love it too,'' she replied.

``I admire her very much,'' said E-4 Kelly Fischer of El Paso after a picture-taking embrace. ``In fact, I wanted to see her more than I wanted to see the president. That's terrible to say.''

Paper napkins with pictures of turkeys, military hats and pictures of other people's dogs and children instantly became historic keepsakes with the addition of her signature.

``This is going home right now,'' vowed Lance Cpl. Alan Zimmerman, 21, of Statesville, N.C., tucking his hat in his belt.

She found her day ``pretty exciting . . . and pretty moving.''

Desert Shield's commander, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, watched her work the crowd. The Bushes' visit was ``wonderful for the troops'' and while he thought they probably all wanted to be there, they also knew they couldn't.

``But these kids here are so proud to be here. Doesn't it make you want to cry? It makes me want to cry. But you see those kids? They're proud Americans,'' he told a reporter.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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