It's not everyday that an author's book reading erupts into a foreign-policy debate, complete with chanting protesters being led out by their collars. The author on this occasion is former President George Bush, architect of the Gulf War sanctions that continue to guide US policy toward Iraq even to this day.
Some authors would kill for the kind of book-selling publicity that came last weekend. US warplanes, ships, and troops sat in the Persian Gulf, ready to strike Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
But on a rainy morning, at the opening of the three-day Texas Book Festival, the former president seemed to have a mixture of annoyance and pride about events in the Middle East. Pride that his zero-tolerance policy toward Iraq is still in place; annoyance that Saddam Hussein is as well.
"The hardest decision a president makes is when you have to send someone else's son or someone else's daughter to war," said Mr. Bush, answering one of many questions on the effect of sanctions seven years after the Gulf War. Our current president is doing the right thing."
For the members in the audience - from famous novelists and adoring Republicans to angry protesters - the readings from Bush's book, "A World Transformed," co-authored with Gen. Brent Scowcroft, were a moment of classic Bush. There was that folksy cadence, the awkward hand motions, and Bush's personal remembrances of a time of extraordinary historical changes - the Tiananmen Square massacre, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet coup, and the Gulf War, to name a few.
In terms of sheer history, it was a heady time to be head of the free world. But in a time when the word "intern" can make a grown man blush, Bush's readings were a reminder of a kinder, gentler time indeed.
Take, for instance, Bush's aside while reading a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev, assuring him that the sandy pit at Camp David where the two world leaders threw horseshoes "is still there in good order." At this point, Bush looks up at the audience and says, "I might add that Gorbachev picked up one horseshoe and hit a ringer on the first try, and never hit another one again."
The legacy of George Herbert Walker Bush also contains its share of controversy, to be sure, as evidenced by the number of protesters sprinkled in the gallery, and by the persistent, if polite, questions at the end of the talk about whether international sanctions to deny humanitarian aid to Iraq were justifiable.
When faced with calm questions, Bush responded in kind. But when the questions came in the form of a shout, Bush's tone grew edgy and muscular.
"War is not fun," he said, pointing a finger at one protester, and raising his voice above a chorus of boos directed at the protester who was escorted off the premises. "But you don't take over another country with impunity. The sanctions are there and they're there for a reason."
For the most part, though, Bush appeared to enjoy being on the podium. Members of the audience quickly picked up a familial tone set during a humorous introduction by daughter-in-law Laura. One woman shouted, "Where's Barbara?" Another man gamely wanted to know if Bush's sons would follow him into "the family business," just as John Quincy Adams followed John Adams into the presidency. "I'm not sure I can see that far ahead," Bush said coyly, but in an allusion to the recent election of both Jeb and George W. Bush, he added, "I do see a parallel with the Rockefeller brothers, one the governor of New York and the other in Arkansas."
But one question - What are the most important characteristics in a president? - seemed to draw out a more reflective Bush.
At first Bush tossed out a few words like croutons on a salad - duty, honor, country - but finally he seemed to see the resonance of the question for current events.
"I believe in treating the office I held with respect," he said, then walked off the stage to a standing ovation.