Dignitaries, working class join Bush for appearance

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, May 4, 2005

CANTON – Though the topic at hand was serious business, the moodwas often light as President Bush stumped Tuesday in Mississippifor acceptance of his plan to shore up the nation’s Social Securitysystem.

The president, upon taking the stage at the Nissan auto plantbefore a sea of workers wearing mostly casual clothing, wasted notime in getting himself more comfortable.

“My first observation is that I overdressed,” Bush said,removing his suit jacket to the chuckles and applause of hisaudience.

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Before wading into the Social Security fray, the president tookthe opportunity to thank those who serve others: members of thenations armed forces and those who grace their communities asvolunteers.

“We’ve got a strong military,” Bush told the crowd at hisnoontime appearance, “and I can assure you we’re going to keep itthat way.”

The president also urged audience members to do more in theircommunities.

“If you want to serve America,” he said, “join the army ofcompassion. Volunteer.”

Bush, making his fourth visit to Mississippi as president andthird to the metro-Jackson area, was accompanied from Washington byU.S. Sens. Thad Cochran and Trent Lott as well as U.S. Reps. RogerWicker and Chip Pickering, all Republicans. Lott’s wife, Tricia,made the trek from Washington as well. Also listening to Bush’sSocial Security message from the VIP section of the audience wereGov. Haley Barbour and his wife, Marsha, Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, U.S.Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, and the mayors ofCanton, Madison and Richland – all in the metro area.

Each of Bush’s previous Mississippi trips was a campaign stopfor a fellow Republican locked in a fierce campaign – twice forBarbour in 2003 and once for Pickering, who represents the state’sThird District, in 2002. On Tuesday, however, the president’s stumpspeech was the latest volley in a multi-state battle to sway publicopinion on the need to reform a time-honored social program.

Bush reiterated the finer points of his plan – includingcontroversial personal savings accounts – and further explainedsome of the newer ones, such as the idea of tweaking the SocialSecurity system to favor poorer workers.

In a prime-time White House news conference last week, thepresident tried to recast his vision for Social Security as aprogram that would be indexed to a worker’s earnings, entitlingpoorer workers to benefits equal to a larger percentage of his orher income.

Bush was joined in his discussion of Social Security by fivepeople, including four Mississippians who each expressed someconcern about the current system.

Among them was Deanie Smith, 84, a retired federal worker whodraws retirement benefits plus her deceased husband’s SocialSecurity benefits.

Smith said she counts on her monthly check and can’t afford tolose it but also understands the future needs of her two babyboomer children. She said she was uneasy about both her future andtheirs.

Bush said Smith’s fear was symptomatic of the political climatethat stops progress.

“That’s how you stop things in America,” the president said.”You scare people.”

Thirty-two-year-old cotton farmer Coley Bailey, of Grenada,echoed Smith’s uncertainty.

“My concern is that there won’t be any Social Security for mywife and I when we retire,” he said.

The president said that is what he’s working to solve.

DeLoris Killen, 71, of Union, retired once but is workingpart-time again “to make ends meet.”

In a lighter moment, Killen drew a hearty laugh from theaudience and landed herself on at least one national cable newscastTuesday night by playing off a good-natured jab Laura Bush took ather husband over the weekend.

During Saturday’s annual White House Correspondents Dinner inWashington, the first lady said “Mr. Excitement” is typicallyasleep by 9 p.m., leaving her awake to watch hit show “DesperateHousewives.”

On Tuesday, the president said of one-time seamstress Killenthat “the system didn’t provide enough for her to retire on.”

“I’m just another Desperate Housewife,” Killen deadpanned.