President Bush was joining politicians and firefighters in a St. Patrick's Day parade Saturday that offered reminders of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Bush departed early in the morning from the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland for the quick day trip to Chicago. City Hall says he is the first president in recent memory to attend the parade, which drew almost 250,000 people last year.

"He wants to celebrate St. Patrick's Day with Chicagoans," White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said before Bush joined in the festivities. "It is one of the largest Irish-American communities in America and this is one of the largest parades."

The parade covers several downtown blocks near the Lake Michigan shoreline in a city so Irish it dyes the Chicago River green for the occasion.

The parade has long been a political fixture for Chicago politicians, the most successful of whom are generally Democrats.

Organizers this year arranged for Chicago and New York City firefighters to ride on a float at the head of the parade.

The Rev. Mychal Judge, the Catholic chaplain of the New York City Fire Department, received a unique honor. Killed in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center, Judge was named the parade's grand marshal. It was the first time the honor has been bestowed posthumously.

The participation of the Republican president was in advance of Tuesday's statewide primary that features hotly contested GOP races for governor and U.S. Senate.

Bush lost Chicago's Cook County to Democrat Al Gore by a more than 2-1 margin in the 2000 election and was defeated more narrowly statewide.

The White House maintained Bush chose Chicago not out of any political considerations but rather for the Irish ancestry of many of its citizens and the spirited nature of its famous parade.

St. Patrick's Day is always marked in green on the White House calendar. This year Bush celebrated early, playing host at a White House reception on Wednesday.

The president received an Irish-crystal bowl of shamrocks from Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and expressed encouragement at progress made to date on the stony road toward peace in Northern Ireland.