Former President George W. Bush was greeted by thunderous applause on the Fourth of July as he told thousands of spectators in a rural Oklahoma rodeo arena that the U.S. was "the greatest nation on the face of the earth."
Bush was given six standing ovations as he spoke on a warm, humid evening in GOP-friendly Woodward, a town of about 12,000 residents in northwest Oklahoma and the latest in a handful of out-of-the-way places Bush has visited since leaving office.
During a 30-minute speech mostly devoid of political references — he mentioned his successor, Barack Obama, just once in passing — Bush thanked members of the military, spoke about the bravery of injured soldiers he'd met and told stories of people in difficult situations helping others.
"Patriotism comes in all different kinds of forms," he said. "Freedom is beautiful, freedom is precious, freedom must always be defended."
He also joked with the crowd, telling them it was "nice of you to give a retired guy something to do." The former Texas governor even briefly talked football, saying "all I ask is you take it easy on the Longhorns next year," referring to the heated rivalry between Texas and Oklahoma.
Bush surprised city
Woodward Mayor Bill Fanning estimated about 6,500 people attended Bush's speech. The former president surprised city leaders by accepting their invitation to speak at festivities celebrating the $25 million renovation of a local park.
Seats for the speech — held at a rodeo arena built in the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration — ranged from $25 up to $500 for the "Oval Office Ticket" in the first rows with VIP parking and complimentary beverages. Event promoter Landon Laubhan declined to say how much Bush was getting paid to speak.
After the speech, Bush waded into the crowd for a few minutes, giving hugs, signing autographs and shaking hands. "I didn't think he'd do that," Fanning said. "I told him he's welcome back any time."
Woodward is friendly territory for Bush, who visited the town two decades ago while campaigning for his father's presidential bid. Oklahoma hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, and was the only state in the 2008 election to have every county vote for Republican candidate John McCain.
In 2004, Bush won 80.9 percent of the vote in Woodward County as he defeated Democratic challenger John Kerry.
"I came because George Bush was coming down here and I wanted to see him," said 48-year-old Douglas Stewart of nearby Freedom, who had a U.S. flag attached to his ballcap. "I helped put him in office twice. I'm proud to say I did."
Stewart's 18-year-old daughter, Amber Stewart of Nephi, Utah, said that although she would have voted for Obama, a Democrat, had she been old enough last year, she thought it was "pretty awesome" that Bush would visit such a small town.
The town welcomed Bush with banners on restaurants, hotels and a highway entering Woodward. Three protesters standing outside the arena with anti-Bush signs left by mid-afternoon. No protests were seen inside the arena.
City Manager Alan Riffel said it was the first presidential visit to Woodward since the late 1950s, when Dwight Eisenhower landed at the airport outside town en route to view drought damage in the area.