When George W. Bush walked into the convention hall to take his place on the Denver stage, it marked the first visit ever by a sitting U.S. President to an annual meeting of the century-old national cattle organization.

The president's entrance, his head topped with a Western hat, was greeted with boisterous and prolonged cheers and applause. Accompanied by an entourage that included Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman and members of Congress, the president and First Lady Laura appeared almost overwhelmed by the warmth of the reception.

In a nationally televised speech interrupted by numerous standing ovations, Bush began by talking about his own Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, TX.

“I don't get to spend enough time there, but when I do, I really enjoy being around the cows,” he said, following it with his trademark chuckle. The crowd roared its approval.

“I find it such a relaxing place,” he continued, “a place to stay in touch with what's important in life. Laura and I love what we do; we love our new address. But I can assure you, when it's all over, we're going back to the ranch.”

Over the course of his roughly 90-minute appearance, Bush touched on subjects ranging from terrorism to farm policy, foreign trade and the economy. Whatever the subject, however, he retained his connection to the audience, working in his admiration for beef industry folks and the important role they play in the health of the nation.

“I appreciate being with people who love the land and appreciate open space. I realize there's nobody more central to the American experience than the cowboy. But cattle raising is not only a big part of America's past; I view it as an incredibly important part of America's future,” he said.

He celebrated the cattle industry's independence: “I appreciate so very much the fact that the cattleman usually doesn't spend a lot of time asking something from the federal government, except for perhaps lower taxes.

“And I'm proud to report that finally, finally enough members of Congress, …understood the punitive nature of the death tax, and we sent it on its way to extinction.”

He lauded cattle producers for the values they hold and instill in others.

“One thing I appreciate about cattlemen and the cattlewomen and the families that ranch our land is the values… the values of hard work, of faith and family,” he said.

The president also stressed the importance of a healthy, vibrant farm economy.

“Part of making sure we've got a healthy economic outlook is to have a healthy agricultural sector,” he said. “Our farm economy, our ranchers and farmers provide an incredible part of the nation's economic vitality.”

The president drew his most thunderous applause when he acknowledged beef producers' role in stewardship of the nation's resources.

“Every day is Earth Day for people who rely upon the land to make a living,” he said. “The best conservation practices happen because somebody realizes that it's in their benefit, their own economic interests, to practice good conservation in order to raise cows, for example.”

He said he explained that concept to Vladimir Putin during a visit last year by the Russian president and his wife to the Bush ranch.

“We think that the collective wisdom of those who own their land is a benefit to the nation; that when individuals make proper choices because they own their own property, that all those decisions in a collective way make better environmental policy, better land use policy than if it was dictated from a central source of people, many of whom have probably never been on the land,” he said.

He called on the beef industry to become involved politically to help move forward his work on the farm bill, foreign trade and on domestic issues. He also exhorted the crowd to become involved on the local level.

“…if we want to fight evil with good, we can do so in many ways, all across America,” he said. “My call to America is to help somebody in need.”

After his remarks, the president and first lady spent a half hour shaking hands and signing autographs. The contingent then left to board Air Force One for the trip to Salt Lake City and the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.

Attendee excitement over the impending visit by the president was eclipsed only by the post-appearance excitement.

“His appearance speaks highly of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. A U.S. president doesn't stop just anywhere,” said J.D. Alexander, a Pilger, NE, cattle feeder who was among a group of producers who sat on stage with the president. “His willingness to stay around afterwards and walk the full length of the rope line to shake every hand said a lot.”

Gene Harris, a registered and commercial Angus producer from Killdeer, ND, also sat on stage with Bush.

“He spoke from the heart,” said Harris. “He's in tune with the issues important to landowners. I thought he gave us an opening to fix some of the private property rights that have been stripped from us through regulation. He made it clear he was willing to help private property owners re-establish some of those rights,” Harris said.

Jim Anderson, a Longmont, CO, cattle feeder, was among those who shook Bush's hand following the speech.

“It's such an honor to meet a president of the United States that you become overwhelmed with the ceremony of it all,” Anderson said. “But, I was impressed that he came to visit with cattle producers. And, I was impressed by what he had to say about taxes and death taxes and that he wanted to work for us,” Anderson said.

To read and hear the president's complete speech before the Cattle Industry Convention, go to www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/02/20020208-1.html.