Bush Takes Japanese Prime Minister To Graceland
First Published: June 30, 2006 2:37 PM EDT Credit: AP
-- MEMPHIS, Tenn. (June 30, 2006) — President Bush’s going-away present to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was some kind of “Good Luck Charm.”
Amid the ceramic monkeys, floor-and-ceiling green shag carpet and animal-head armrests of Graceland’s Jungle Room, the delighted prime minister just couldn’t hold back the Elvis lines.
All it took was a simple invitation from Bush.
“You’re a pretty good Elvis singer,” the president said, in an obvious prompt to his guest. Bush knew what was coming, having previously experienced Koizumi’s tendency to burst into song when it comes to the late rock ‘n’ roll legend who is the Japanese leader’s undisputed musical hero.
Koizumi quickly complied. “Love me tender,” he sang. “Wise men say, `Only fools rush in.’ “
Enter the special tour guides for the two leaders’ private tour of Graceland: Presley’s only child and heir, Lisa Marie, and her mother, Priscilla. “I want you, I love you,” remarked Koizumi, spouting more Elvis tunes. Draping his arm around Lisa Marie, he crooned some more: “Hold me close, hold me tight.”
It was the kind of Friday Graceland has never seen.
The Bush-Koizumi tour through the Memphis manse wrapped up two days of consultations between the staunch allies. Koizumi’s visit saw military pomp, the tinkling of crystal at a black-tie dinner and two hours of discussions on Iraq, North Korea, U.S. beef exports and other weighty matters in the Oval Office.
But their outing to Graceland, with its oddity quotient and celebrity patina, was the most-anticipated portion. It drew an enormous traveling press corps to accompany the men. Even Bush termed it “an unusual experience.”
Swiveling hips, spangled jumpsuits and gaudy interiors aren’t Bush’s usual style. And this is a president who routinely skips even the most awe-inspiring destinations on his speed-travels — such as India’s Taj Mahal.
So it’s a sign of his affinity for the Japanese leader that Bush took Koizumi to a tourist hotspot, and by plane, no less, five years to the day after they first met. Aides said the president decided a Graceland tour was the perfect way, along with a gift of a jukebox loaded with Elvis hits, to bid adieu to a leader who is departing office in September after being one of his most ardent defenders on the world stage.
“This visit here shows that not only am I personally fond of the prime minister, but that the ties between our peoples are very strong as well,” Bush said after the tour, in front of the white-columned, two-story colonial and a pink Cadillac on its drive.
“My dream came true,” said Koizumi, donning gold-rimmed sunglasses as the pair walked to the motorcade waiting to take them to a lunch of Memphis barbeque.
On the way there, they made an unscheduled stop at the National Civil Rights Museum at the hotel where the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Bush and Koizumi greeted excited children and then went aside.
The mood for the day was set when the public address system on Air Force One played “Love Me Tender” and “Don’t Be Cruel” and other Elvis songs. DVDs of Elvis movies were available for viewing. And stewards brought out that Elvis culinary favorite-- grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches, each with 36 grams of fat. The two leaders passed on the sandwiches. Bush drank coffee and Koizumi drank green tea.
“I’m feeling a little heavy,” groaned White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten, one of the few presidential aides who braved the breakfast treat. “I so rarely fry my peanut butter sandwiches.”
White House press secretary Tony Snow-- wearing gold-rimmed plastic sunglasses-- did his best, meanwhile, to fuel lingering conspiracy theories that the singer never died, saying that Bush and Koizumi were likely to go to Elvis’ “alleged grave site.” In fact, Graceland spokesman David Beckwith said the “meditation garden” near the swimming pool where Elvis is buried was the chosen place for the two allies to have some “private time.”
The pair saw what most visitors see: the Jungle Room, famously furnished with a 30-minute shopping spree, and the glossy black baby-grand piano near the living room’s white, 15-foot sofa, and hundreds of gold records, outfits and guitars in the home’s museums.
Also like others, they weren’t allowed a peek at the private upstairs quarters, including the bedroom and bath where Elvis died of heart disease and drug abuse in 1977.
The trip to an outside-the-Beltway locale recalls state visits earlier in Bush’s presidency.
In 2001, Bush took Mexican President Vicente Fox to Toledo, Ohio, where the two addressed Hispanic voters the day after their state visit at the White House.
The next year, then-Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski also saw his state visit capped with an out-of-town journey. He accompanied Bush to a Polish cultural center in the Detroit suburbs for traditional fare and an audience with the area’s large Polish-American-- and heavily Roman Catholic-- community.
The trips with Fox and Kwasniewski served Bush’s domestic politics as well as global concerns. They were aimed at helping the president with key U.S. voting constituencies in battleground states even while the ride on Air Force One and close-up look at American life wowed his guests.
Bush has always favored a more casual brand of diplomacy, holding fewer lavish state dinners than his predecessors and looking for personal touches whenever he can.
For instance, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, like Bush an avid bike rider, was treated to a two-wheel jaunt around the Camp David presidential retreat earlier this month.
Koizumi’s treatment goes several steps further, making a visit to the president’s Texas ranch no longer the premier reward for a foreign friend.
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