When illustrating America's close ties to Asia, never forget the elephants.
In the keynote speech of his Asia tour on Thursday, U.S. President George W. Bush couldn't resist retelling the tale of how the King of Siam once wrote to offer elephants to help the U.S. government fight the South in the Civil War. It's a story meant to illustrate the long U.S.-Thai relationship - 175 years long, in fact - and one that is immortalized in the Broadway show, "The King and I."
"President Abraham Lincoln politely declined," Bush said, to laughter.
But, mindful of a new era of security threats, the president quipped: "I was wondering whether or not we can kind of get the offer back on the table. Although my ranch isn't big enough, probably, to hold the elephants. "
The president found room for another old tale, too, one all-too-familiar to those who make a living listening to Bush speeches. This one recounts the time he squired Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to see Graceland, Elvis Presley's famous, gaudy mansion. Bush has relived the 2006 visit countless times for countless audiences, marveling at what it says that the leader of a country his father fought during World War II could become such a huge fan of American pop culture (and of Elvis particularly) and one of the U.S.'s greatest allies.
"Who could ever forget the trip?" Bush asked. "I'll certainly never forget it."
He couldn't resist giving the visit a little more historical importance than it may deserve, locally or elsewhere.
"I don't think a lot of people in Memphis, Tennessee, will ever forget it either," Bush said.
Bush doesn't appreciate talk from others about the end of his presidency, coming in less than six months. He brushes off questions about his post-White House future by insisting he is focused on the job still at hand and fully intends to "sprint to the finish."
As he tours Asia, though, his own public musings have increasingly strayed to the day he breaks the tape.
To a group of Asian journalists, he made fun of his own "sprint to the finish" line, saying that after the U.S. elections in November his status will switch to "semiretirement." "I'll be still sprinting, but semiretired," he joked.
In South Korea on Wednesday, President Lee Myung-bak invited Bush "to come and visit Korea freely, when you have more time." Bush took that in good-natured stride. "I think you're referring to my retirement," he said.
Then in his Bangkok address, he flat-out said "this is my last trip to East Asia as president."
Watch for an adjustment to that statement later in the trip, though. Opening a European journey in June, Bush also said it would be his last to that region as president. A few days later he then complained that "some are speculating this is my last trip."
"Let them speculate," he said then. "Who knows?"
In between criticizing China's human rights record and having lunch with activists fighting against a repressive military junta in Myanmar, Bush relived his school days.
He left the shiny skyscrapers of downtown Bangkok and traveled to the slums of Bangkok to visit the Mercy Center, which has a shelter for street children, four orphanages, a hospice and a home for mothers and children with AIDS.
In an art class, Bush grabbed a green colored pencil and joined with children as they turned blank sheets of paper into colorful artwork that decorated the walls. He autographed some of their pictures. Nancy, a young girl with two braids, won the president's praise. "Sweet girl," he said.
The children clasped their hands and bowed in a sign of thanks.
Bush then pivoted back to more serious matters: The Myanmar government's slow response to a cyclone that hit in May and the push for democracy there.