Going for Gold...and for the Green

updated 01/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

TAKE IT FROM VINCE GILL: THERE'S something about George and Barbara Bush that makes grown-ups regress. "They have a way of making you feel like their kid," says the country crooner. Norah Lee Allen, wife of the Oak Ridge Boys' Duane Allen, knows just what he means. "When you think of Barbara and George Bush," she says, "you think of your aunt and uncle." And why not? Charmed by the former First Couple's warm and fuzzy family values—and the boost President Bush gave them when he declared himself a fan of pork rinds, horseshoes and all things country—the stars of Nashville turned out to throw the Bushes a party Jan. 8 for their 50th wedding anniversary.

"It didn't hurt to have him going around the world bragging on country music," says Donna Sterban, wife of the Oak Ridge Boys' Richard Sterban. "He brought country into the limelight." So last fall, when Sterban learned from Barbara's memoir that the couple's golden anniversary was imminent, she called the Bushes and asked if they'd come to Tennessee to celebrate. The Bushes were delighted, and the daylong bash, orchestrated by Sterban, began with a ride from the airport to their plush suite at the Opryland Hotel in the Oak Ridge Boys' customized bus. Gill took the pair—and a group including their son Texas Governor-elect George W.—on an afternoon of golf ("I found Mrs. Bush's golf balls in the weirdest places," said Gill. "And I fixed all her divots"). Later, notables from the Hollywood, Washington and country music circuits—including Lorrie Morgan, Delta Burke, Mary Matalin, Loretta Lynn and Amy Grant—turned out for a musical tribute at the Grand Ole Opry. (Taped to air later this year on TNN, the event drew nearly 4,000 people and hoped to raise more than $150,000 for the George Bush Presidential Library Center in College Station, Texas; the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy; and MusiCares, a charity that helps members of the music industry.)

By day's end, the Bushes—who celebrated their actual anniversary, Jan. 6, with a three-day visit to the Sea Island, Ga., resort where they honeymooned in 1945—seemed touched by all the fuss. "The tears are beginning to show," said the former President, who sang along when the Oak Ridge Boys serenaded his wife with their hit "My Baby Is American-Made." Watching it all, Matalin admitted she, for one, couldn't grasp the idea of 50 years together. "But look who I'm married to," she said, alluding to Democratic strategist James Carville. "We celebrated 50 hours, and that was a big landmark."

With his five children and nine of his 13 grandkids joining the festivities in Nashville, George Bush waxed a bit sentimental. "It doesn't matter anymore about politics," he said, adding that it was an appreciation of "family and our blessings in life" that kept his marriage together. Characteristically, Mrs. Bush had her own theory on how they reached the half-century mark. "He had," she said, "a great wife."

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