First lady phone-in a reason to party

July 18, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The Republican Women's Club of Carroll County and a few male guests who gathered last week in Eldersburg talked politics, sipped punch and munched on star-shaped cookies coated with red, white and blue sprinkles. But the main item on their agenda was an imminent phone call.

First lady Laura Bush would be "calling with a personal message," announced Gerrye Johnston, party hostess and the club's membership committee chairwoman.

"This is a phenomenal blessing for us," Johnston said.

That the one small party with about 15 guests was among 7,000 other groups sharing in the conversation did not dampen their enthusiasm.

"I love this!" said club member Josie Velazquez, who brought her 12-year-old daughter, Clarissa, to the party. "Our young girls need a role model and Mrs. Bush is a great one."

Clarissa, who played the piano for the partygoers, said she would have liked to ask the first lady a question. But she had not submitted it the required months ahead of the party.

"I want to know what is going on in the war and why we are in a war," she said.

Johnston decorated her home with smiling photos of the first couple, miniature flags and "God Bless America" signs. She passed out campaign buttons, bumper stickers and election literature and made sure everyone had a navy blue or a white "Bush Cheney 2004" T-shirt.

Waiting by the phone

Guests constantly checked their watches and stared at the kitchen telephone. When it rang before the appointed hour, Johnston quickly dispatched a telemarketer.

"It is like waiting for the call that the baby has come," Johnston said.

"Or waiting for a date to call," said her granddaughter, Stephani Kemper, 20, of Glen Burnie. "I am excited, but really not into this as much as my grandmom."

At exactly 8:25 p.m., per instructions faxed to her from Bush campaign officials, Johnston had her granddaughter activate the call with the number and the password that would let the party participate in a nationwide word with Bush.

"It's time!" shouted Johnston, hushing the crowd surrounding the speaker phone. "It is the national party for the president. I think I need a nerve pill."

Kemper made the connection to the White House.

"I do think that it's important for young people to be educated about what is going on in our world," Kemper said.

Minutes passed and still no Laura Bush, only an announcer repeating the same message - "The first lady will be with us in a few minutes."

"It takes a while to get all those calls to come through," said Michelle Jefferson, the Carroll County Republican Central Committee chairwoman. Jefferson, an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention next month, said she will have another - and probably closer - encounter with Bush at the first lady's luncheon during the convention.

"I saw her when she came to New Windsor a few years ago," said Tanya Shewell, county coordinator for the Republican presidential campaign.

When Bush's campaign director came on the line, Johnston again called for quiet.

"We don't want to miss a word," she said, giving a thumbs up.

At the sound of the first lady's voice, Johnston gave a loud "Yes!"

Bush said she was thrilled that nearly 7,000 groups were having parties attended by tens of thousands throughout the country. She greeted daughters Jenna and Barbara, who were with similar gatherings in Florida and Virginia respectively, with "hey, girls."

The Eldersburg supporters frequently nodded in agreement or clapped in response to Bush's remarks during the telephonic pep rally, which was not a fund-raiser.

Candid talk

The small parties are "a great way to meet other people in the neighborhood who support the president," the first lady said. Then she took a few predetermined questions from New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and West Virginia, but not from Eldersburg. Callers questioned her on education, jobs and women's issues.

"I would have liked to get her thoughts on women's health issues," said Bertha Dapice of Eldersburg.

The Carroll group had ideas for queries, but no entry during the 20-minute call. Given the opportunity, Shewell said she might have asked about the rumors that Vice President Dick Cheney might drop off the ticket.

Shewell said the first lady's answers sounded candid and unrehearsed.

"She was obviously speaking from the heart, not from a script," she said.

Earl Seipp of Westminster would have liked a comment about the military.

"Still, I was really impressed," he said. "But then, I am sold anyway."

The biggest thrill for the partygoers came when President Bush unexpectedly joined the conversation and added his thanks to supporters.

"Now that really tops everything off," Johnston said. "What a great surprise. It was awesome for the president to make a statement, too."

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