Washington You're at a swanky dinner party anywhere in the country -- go ahead, pick a state -- and the person to your right or your left claims to be a Close Personal Friend of the Bushes.
"You're thinking, 'Oh, sure you are,' and you say something like, 'Isn't that nice,' " says Washington insider Jayne Ikard, who's encountered this scenario everywhere from Florida to California.
"But then when you start getting into it, it becomes perfectly clear that this person from Arkansas really is an honest-to-God good friend. And you're just glad you didn't make some sarcastic remark like, 'Of course you are, dear.' "
This friendship thing, as President Bush himself might call it, is almost a religion for the First Couple, who appear to have more pals than points of light.
Although observers say Mr. Bush's gregarious nature goes beyond basic constituency building, they acknowledge that his outgoing style has served him well politically.
But now, as recent polls show him free-falling in popularity, and as he grapples with budget and Middle East crises, "the extent to which his personal style works for him will be put to the test for the first time," says Craig Stoltz, editor of Washington's Dossier magazine.
"We'll have to see if people stop going to his movie nights. He may have a hard time building a crowd."
He certainly never has in the past. Friends are often present -- and in abundance -- at movie viewings in the White House theater, for lunch in the private dining room off the Oval Office, aboard Air Force One, spending the night in the Lincoln bedroom ("We're not used to a double bed, let alone a small one," said Pat Caulkins, wife of one of the president's Yale friends) and up at Camp David for the weekend.
"The Reagans had about six people who came to the White House regularly," says Pete Teeley, a former press secretary for Mr. Bush. "The Bushes have a different gang over every night."
The Bushes' network reaches far and wide from George Bush's childhood days in Greenwich, Conn. to his four-year congressional tour, from a fishing buddy in Maine to his secretary of state.
At a recent ceremony at the National Cathedral, Supreme Court justices and Cabinet officials found themselves seated in the back -- behind row upon row of the Bushes' 371 invited guests.
"That's what happens when you start making friends early and you don't discard them through the years," says Bruce Gelb, director of the U.S. Information Agency and an old Yale friend.
Even Barbara Bush often calls her husband "Pearl Mesta Bush," referring to the late hostess and grande dame of Washington society, and laments that she needs to keep a lot of "filler" in the refrigerator at their Kennebunkport home since dinners for 12 often turn into dinners for 32 after she's done the shopping.
"Being alone is his idea of the worst thing that can happen," says Sheila Tate, Mr. Bush's former campaign press secretary.
"He just has layers and layers of friends," says Thomas L. (Lud) Ashley, a close friend from Bush's "Skull & Bones" days at Yale and former Democratic Congressman from Ohio. "They go out like ripples in the pond."
President Bush has described his vast circuitry of friends as three "concentric circles," with those in the innermost circle a mix of high-ranking political officials and low-profile, often non-political, buddies from his college days at Yale, his oil days in Midland and Houston, Texas, ("We call ourselves the Midland Mafia," says one such friend) and his summers in Maine.
"People who aren't in politics may be more important to him than those who are," says Mr. Ashley. "Having said that, there probably isn't anybody closer to the Bushes than [Secretary of State] Jim Baker."
Along with Secretary Baker -- whose youngest daughter is President Bush's goddaughter -- the president has stocked his Cabinet with longtime friends such as Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. Also counted among those close to President Bush are administration officials including ambassador to Ireland Richard Moore, ambassador to Great Britain Henry E. Catto, chief of protocol Joseph Reed, and former Republican operatives like Dean Burch.
He maintains social ties with several members of Congress, and even since moving to the White House has continued a tradition, started in 1967, of lunching on ham, red-eye gravy and grits in the House dining room with Representative J. P. Hammerschmidt, R-Ark.
Although most of the Bush buddies are, in fact, Republicans, these friendships "transcend politics," says Representative Hammerschmidt. Whenever the congressman casts a vote contrary to the president's wishes -- as he did recently when he voted to override Mr. Bush's veto on a textile bill -- the subject "doesn't come up. If it does, it's in a lighthearted manner."