BEIJING--It's not often that the President of the United States finds himself on the periphery of events. But that's where President Bush seems to be at the Beijing Olympics.
With his wife by his side, Bush was just one of about 80 world leaders lining up like so many airline passengers waiting to go through security -- sandwiched in between South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and an anonymous-looking leader -- to shake hands with Chinese President Hu Jin-tao before the welcoming luncheon for the Beijing Olympics in the Great Hall of the People.
Later, as the leaders walked up a grand staircase to lunch, CCTV caught the remarkable shot of a Chinese aide literally steering Bush from a spot slightly behind Hu to the position directly to the Chinese president's left. Bush, already holding Laura Bush's right hand with his left, immediately took Hu's left hand in his right. With his free hand, Hu reached over and affectionately patted the U.S. president's hand.
|Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images|
|President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush greet Chinese President Hu Jintao and his wife Liu Yongqing before a reception at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, on Friday.|
The friendly gestures between the leaders came despite tensions over Bush's speech in Thailand in which he urged Beijing to improve human rights. China responded by saying no-one should interfere with their internal affairs.
At the dedication of the new U.S. Embassy in Beijing – just hours before the luncheon -- Bush lauded China's "grand history," but also used the opportunity to reiterate his concerns.
Calling the U.S.-China relationship "constructive and cooperative," he declared that the United States would "continue to be candid about our belief that all people should have the freedom to say what they think and worship as they choose. We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful. Candor is the most effective -- is most effective where nations have built a relationship of respect and trust."
However, that "respect and trust" seemed to be fraying early Friday morning when a dispute over the handling of gear and luggage delayed reporters, White House officials and Secret Service agents in the president's traveling party from deplaning from the press charter for about three hours after it arrived in Beijing.
It turns out it wasn't only the press charter that had difficulties. There were issues about Air Force One, too.
NBC News has learned that there was a similar dispute over who would unload the baggage from the hold of the presidential aircraft. The Chinese insisted they do it rather than the usual practice of Air Force personnel doing it. The White House eventually gave in -- only to be told that there would be a delay because Chinese crews were busy unloading other VIP planes.
The First Family's luggage was not affected; it's transported in the cabin, not the hold, and handled by White House valets.
Later, Bush will address the U.S. Olympic team before the game's Opening Ceremonies--where the president will be a mere spectator.