WASHINGTON-Santa showed up late, but President Bush was right on time Thursday night for his final lighting of the National Christmas Tree overlooking the White House, a tradition that drew a crowd of about 3,000 to the Ellipse lawn near the Washington Monument.
Santa's arrival drew more cries of delight from children in the audience than did the president's. After thanking Santa for showing up, President Bush said he and Laura would have time next Christmas to come visit him at the North Pole.
"We'll be short an airplane," he said. "You got an extra sleigh?"
He, the first lady, and two girls whose fathers are being deployed to Iraq flipped the switch to light the live 42-foot Colorado Blue Spruce. The event was broadcast around the world to military men and women, and the president took the opportunity to commend them for their service. The "greatest honor" of his presidency, he said, was serving as their commander in chief.
The tree itself is decked in politically correct energy-efficient light bulbs, making this the most "green" National Christmas Tree ever.
Performers at the lighting wished "Happy Holidays" to Washingtonians in attendance, to which many yelled back, "Merry Christmas!"
The president, however, was specific about what the holiday was all about. Christmas, he said, is the "story of one life that changed millions more."
The crowds sang carols together in the cool night, as Secret Service agents prowled platforms above. Soon the president was whisked back to his front door in a blazing motorcade.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino commented earlier in the day that the president is "more reflective" in these last days in office, as he performs his final acts like the lighting of the Christmas tree.
Washingtonians often camp out all night on the Ellipse at the beginning of November to get tickets to the lighting, which has been a tradition for the past 85 years.
The tree will remain lit until New Year's Day.