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Bush's first visit to state a success

By By SONNY CALLAHAN
U.S. Representative
President George W. Bush made his first official visit to Alabama recently and before the engines on Air Force One had come to a complete stop, America's 43rd president was receiving a warm reception from thousands who turned out to make him feel welcome.
The president was in Alabama to announce a $900 million plan for land and water conservation, using the beautiful Oak Mountain State Park near Birmingham as a picturesque setting and backdrop.
Later, he met with some two dozen members of the clergy from throughout the state to tout his faith-based initiative. 
The Reverend Wesley James, pastor of the Franklin Street Baptist Church in Mobile, was one of a select group of ministers and rabbis who spent more than an hour with the president discussing ways in which faith-based groups can access federal funds for their charitable missions without being discriminated against by the federal government.
In both instances, Bush seemed clearly at ease and at home.  As a young man, the president lived in Alabama during the early 1970s when he worked in the unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign of former Postmaster General Winton M. "Red" Blount.  He also spent part of his tour of duty with the Texas Air National Guard while living in Montgomery.
At Oak Mountain, the president promised to fully fund the Land and Water Conversation Fund with $900 million. This is the first time since the fund was amended in the 1970s to allow for such a large budget.  This request, along with many others, is now on Capitol Hill where it is being considered.
If approved, Bush's plan would channel almost twice the amount of money currently being spent on acquiring new public lands, as well as for the maintenance of parks, docks and hiking trails.
And in his talk with religious leaders, the president explained that his faith-based proposal "is not about politics, but about the hearts and souls of the American people."
Among other things, Bush wants to make sure that faith-based groups are not denied an opportunity to use federal resources simply because they come from a religious entity. 
The president addressed up-front the fact that his initiative is not intended to increase membership rolls of churches, synagogues and mosques. 
Rather, he said "government can do a lot of things but government cannot change people's hearts. The faith communities are in the business of changing people's hearts."
Warm, personable
The trip to Alabama was the second visit I had with the president in as many days. 
On Wednesday, the president invited me and the 12 other House Appropriations subcommittee chairmen to the Oval Office for an in-depth discussion about federal spending and the status of his budget. 
The president seemed genuinely pleased that while his budget was being slightly revised up on the Hill, House leaders were honoring their commitment to him to keep the budget numbers at or under his requested amount.
But the trip aboard Air Force One clearly afforded all in the Alabama delegation who made the journey a rare opportunity to engage the president of the United States in a wide variety of issues.
Perhaps to the disappointment of his critics, the president is certainly no lightweight.
Whether we were talking about foreign policy and his recent visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, or off-shore drilling, President Bush is someone who clearly loves his job and is getting better at it with each passing day.
Rarely did the president refer to staff-prepared notes or summaries; in fact, during the three speeches he made while in Birmingham, he not only didn't use a teleprompter, but he only casually referred to a few hand-written notes.
More importantly, the president used his down-home charm to warm up to even those on the other side of the political aisle. 
At Oak Mountain, for instance, Bush included Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, in those he praised for helping pass his $1.3 trillion tax cut.  Like me, Bud was asked to travel with the president from Washington to Alabama.
This was President Bush's first visit to Alabama since being sworn in on January 20th.  The president was truly touched by his warm welcome.
Until next week, take care and God Bless.