Hope Among the Sufferers

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Despite the rhetorical emphasis the president has put on Uganda's successful treatment of AIDS, President Bush spent only three hours in the country Friday. When he stepped down out of Air Force One, he was greeted with the more familiar lineup of troops. His tour then included another group of singers, some in native headdresses topped with white plumed feathers. After a booming 21-howitzer salute that you could feel in your chest, Bush headed through the lush countryside, past the first really big crowds of his trip. Leaving the airport, the president's motorcade passed the bullet-riddled carcass of an Air France plane, abandoned after the famous 1976 "raid on Entebbe," during which Israeli commandos overwhelmed Palestinian hijackers and freed the passengers.

After a brief bilateral meeting with Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni, Bush visited The AIDS Support Organization (TASO) center, the continent's first and largest indigenous AIDS service organization. It is the model for Bush's $15 billion treatment initiative, and for good reason — Uganda's HIV infection rate has dropped from 30 percent in 1990 to 6.5 percent, according to the health ministry.

This was the president's first meeting with actual AIDS patients, and though it was inexplicably closed to the press, a readout from some who attended told of a moving scene as the patients described for the president the treatment they were receiving. A 51-year-old patient described her husband's death from the disease and her own travails since she has been infected. Bush teared up and hugged her twice. At the conclusion of the meeting, a choir of young children who are also infected clasped hands with Mr. and Mrs. Bush and sang.

Outside the center, Bush spoke to a small crowd of about 100, gathered in a tight courtyard, not much bigger than a two-car garage. "You have worldwide influence here," Bush said under the clear bright sky, "because you've provided a model of care for Uganda. You've shown what can work here in this country. And Uganda, by confronting AIDS aggressively and directly, is giving hope to peoples all across the continent of Africa. We know what it takes to fight AIDS because TASO clinics and others like them are showing the way."

Afterwards, the children's choir sang America the Beautiful. The president moved to shake several of their small hands but decided to do something more. Pushing himself into the grouping, he appeared almost to be leaning his chest on them; arms outstretched, he hugged several of them at once.

The president's day was overshadowed once again by questions on his claim in the State of the Union that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from Africa. Before he even made it to Uganda, his National Security Adviser Condolleeza Rice spoke for nearly 50 minutes with the small pool of reporters on Air Force One. Many of us had been up all night writing, so a few needed a good kick to rouse us from a deep sleep before she arrived. The back and forth discussion about what the president knew and when he knew it was intense. Since it's hard to hear on the plane, and there is very little space between the seats, the exchange took place in close quarters.

Dr. Rice stayed for an unusually long time. Often the White House rushes senior officials out of the cabin after they've answered a dozen or so questions, but a different strategy was in play here. The White House wanted to try to get the questions that had been dogging the president throughout his trip, out of the way. That might open up some room for coverage about the trip itself. The National Security Adviser was going to stay until we ran out of gas.

While Dr. Rice's remarks about Niger will be well reported and parsed to a fare-thee-well, she also took a chance to reflect on her experiences traveling in Africa: "When I think about the Gate of No Return, I still have a lump in my throat, thinking which one of my ancestors might have actually gone through that gate on their way to the United States. But I thought that the President said something that really struck me as an African-American — and it's funny, it's always struck me as an African-American — which is that the remarkable thing is that those horrors and the horrors that they experienced on the way to the United States, and the horrors they experienced once they got to the United States didn't break the spirit of these people, that somehow they managed to, in many cases, find faith, to find, somehow, a sense of community. You know, jumping the broom is still an African-American tradition at marriage — not that I have done that yet — (laughter) but, you know, it's still considered a tradition. It comes out of slavery, and it was in some ways a defiant act because people weren't really supposed to marry. And you just see the tremendous spirit and toughness of these people. And it just makes me extremely proud to be descendent from those people."

This was the fourth in a series of reports filed by White House correspondent John Dickerson, who was on the road with George W. Bush in Africa throughout the President's five-day, five-country tour.

Day One: In Senegal, Bush Speaks Against Slavery

Day Two: South Africa: Hard Questions and Rough Dancing

Day Three: A Party in Botswana