WASHINGTON, DC—In an unexpected move that shocked White House staff and stunned the nation, President George W. Bush arrived unannounced at the Oval Office Monday.
Bush, who flew in from his home in Texas, was greeted by security forces upon landing outside the White House, and quickly escorted through the building's back entrance. Wearing a special suit-and-tie uniform intended to boost morale and show support for men and women serving in the Beltway, Bush entered the East Room at about 3:30 p.m. and addressed a bewildered but enthusiastic crowd of staff members.
"Am I late?" Bush joked to the group of approximately 200, who were led to believe they would be attending a ceremony to honor Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters. Bush's entrance received a standing ovation.
"It is incredible to see firsthand what you brave men and women do every day," Bush said to rousing applause. "You are all heroes."
Telling the group he wished he had the time to work alongside each and every one of them, Bush made general inquiries about conditions at the executive mansion, recruitment of new personnel, and where everyone was eating for lunch.
According to sources close to the president, Bush barely had time to rest during the four-hour visit. He first met face-to-face with several high-ranking U.S. officials, who briefed him on the situation in Washington. Bush then signed a number of documents, took a guided tour of the facilities, and in a symbolic show of support for the current administration, shook hands with the vice president.
Bush was also granted permission to sit in on an important Cabinet meeting concerning U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Those who were present said the president mostly observed, but noted that he did ask "a lot" of questions. Afterward, Bush sat behind the Oval Office desk and shuffled papers for 15 minutes while news photographers snapped photographs.
For most members of the White House staff, it was their first chance to meet the president. Many said they were "overcome" with excitement.
"When I was getting ready for work this morning, the last person I ever thought I'd see was the president of the United States," said Alexander Mistri, special assistant to the president for legislative affairs.
"I actually got to shake hands with the president," Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao said. "He seems like a very nice man in person."
While Bush made surprise trips to work in August 2004 and stopped by in July 2005 to pick up a paycheck, Monday's visit marked his first extended stay since last December.
For security reasons, the trip was shrouded in secrecy. Sources say the president was ushered out of his Crawford, TX home just before noon Monday, while his family and closest friends were under the assumption that he was sleeping in, per normal vacation protocol. Only a few officials were informed of the trip, including his chief of staff Joshua Bolten, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Bush's fishing buddy Dale.
Many claim the trip was staged as a "media ploy" intended to convince the public that the administration's occupation of Washington, D.C. is not a lost cause.
"President Bush wants us to believe that he is in touch with the Bush administration," political analyst Garry Wills said. "But this is too little, too late. Mr. Bush has staked his legacy on the success of the work being done in the White House, but if I were him, I'd be thinking more about an exit strategy than rallying the grunts on the ground."
Despite such criticisms, Bush's visit ended on a positive note. At 4:55 p.m. Monday, he gave a parting speech to staff, thanking them for their hard work, explaining that the future of the country rests in their hands, and promising that they would all be sent home to their families "very soon."