Amid the tinkling crystal and humming small talk of a White House state dinner, Vicente Fox offered a clue to his vision for relations with the United States.
"We not only have in common that we wear boots, western boots, [and] that we like to go to rest to our farms," Mr. Fox said Wednesday night, referring to his friendship with host "Jorge" Bush. "We have in common," he emphasized, "that we like to see things happen."
The comment was not quite vintage for a man who likes to make a splash and stir the pot. But it was another hint that this is one Mexican the US should learn won't play the traditional subservient role. With me, Fox was saying, count on a Mexico that is an equal and active partner who (to continue the ranch metaphor) won't hesitate to use the spurs sometimes.
For decades, even centuries, the paradigm had stayed pretty much the same: The US acted, Mexico reacted. Before the continent's national boundaries were set, it was over land. More recently, it's been over immigration, illegal drugs, and trade disputes.
But Fox got the Washington henhouse clucking a year ago when, as president-elect, he came north and brashly called for an open US-Mexico border within a decade. And this week, he had barely hit US soil before he was again demonstrating a catch-'em-off-guard and take-the-upper-hand approach.
In his arrival remarks Wednesday on the White House South Lawn, Fox said, "We must, and we can, reach an agreement on migration before the end of this very year." The two countries have been working for months toward an immigration accord that would offer legalization to at least some of the 3 million to 4 million Mexicans illegally working and residing in the US. But in the run-up to this week's state visit, officials from both countries had downplayed the likelihood of any agreement on the touchy immigration issue anytime soon.
Fox's new timetable for action surprised US officials, who were remaining noncommittal in response. Whether the words will translate into any commitment to action might be clearer by the end of his visit today. But Fox's message was clear: Let's not drag our boots; let's get this done.
"For the first time, the US is being forced to react to Mexican statements," says Antonio Ocaranza, a spokesman for former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and now head of the Mexico office of Public Strategies Inc., an Austin, Texas-based public-affairs firm.
The charismatic and appropriately mustachioed Latin leader carried his message yesterday to a joint session of Congress - an institution that has traditionally viewed Mexico as undemocratic, untrustworthy, and secondary. Fox challenged the lawmakers to establish a new relationship based on trust. After the address, Fox was to visit a Hispanic-run social-services center in Toledo, Ohio, with Mr. Bush.
By stepping outside the Washington Beltway to shake hands with Mexican-Americans, Fox is doing the US president an electoral favor. The White House is determined to increase Bush's appeal to Hispanic voters before the 2004 election - and Mexicans constitute about 60 percent of the growing US Hispanic population.
But true to his style, Fox is visiting Toledo - and his wife, Martha, is accompanying Laura Bush to a huge Mexican-American community in Chicago - with equal gain in mind.
Fox, whose proposals for tax and energy reform, among others, have hit the skids in Mexico under mounting political opposition and a deepening economic downturn, knows a good showing in the US will play well at home. Fox is also counting on the US, which has been impressed with his democratic credentials as the first Mexican president elected from the opposition, to help project Mexico as a leader in Latin America and on the world stage.
Back home, Fox is learning that governance by pushing limits can backfire. In his election campaign, Fox caused a stir by claiming he could solve the smoldering Zapatista Indian uprising in the southern state of Chiapas in 10 minutes. Once in office last December, he lost precious momentum, spending several months addressing Chiapas to little avail.
But he also knows that, when it comes to the US, he has the electoral card to play, as no Mexican president before him has had, to help him get what he wants. "Fox knows he has a weapon in his pocket to deliver votes to whoever [in the US] wants to play ball with him," says Mr. Ocaranza.
Applying that to Fox's call for quick action on immigration, he adds, "Such a statement puts the other side in the position of either accepting, or saying it can't be done. With millions of Hispanic votes in the balance, in could be very costly for Bush to turn to his new friend and say no."