KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine – President Bush, who prides himself on building personal ties to foreign leaders, launched a bit of hamburger diplomacy Saturday as he welcomed the newly elected president of France to an informal lunch and private chat at the Bush family compound here.
The vacationing French leader, Nicolas Sarkozy, offered a gracious medley of continental etiquette when he arrived: He shook Bush’s hand, bussed Laura Bush on both cheeks, bowed to smooch the hand of the president’s mother, Barbara Bush, and happily hugged Bush’s daughters, Jenna and Barbara.
The White House described the seaside session as a “casual family lunch,” and not a formal summit with one of America’s oldest allies. But the signs of change seemed as clear as the French tricolor flag that snapped in the breeze near the U.S. flag under a sparkling sky at the Bush estate.
In a rare departure, the White House disclosed later that former President George H.W. Bush joined his son for a 50-minute, closed-door discussion with Sarkozy, as well as on a wave-smashing speedboat ride along the rocky coast.
White House aides have taken pains in the past to deflect suggestions that the elder Bush acts as a closet adviser to his son. But the three-way “tete-a-tete-a-tete” Saturday confirms that the former president plays a direct role at times, at least as a sounding board and boat skipper.
Washington, D.C.’s relations with France had plummeted under Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, especially over the French refusal to back the war in Iraq.
Sarkozy, in contrast, is unabashedly pro-American, a man with a passion for Ernest Hemingway, Steve McQueen and Sylvester Stallone. During his campaign, he claimed he was proud to be called “Sarkozy the American.” Like Bush, he shuns alcohol and is an avid bicycle rider.
“I expect to meet with a friend,” Bush told reporters before Sarkozy arrived for a 2 1/2-hour visit. “He’s bringing a good brain, good vision and good will.”
Bush flies back to Washington today and then heads down to his usual August vacation spot, his ranch in sweltering Crawford, Texas. He promised reporters here that he would happily consider taking a holiday in France someday, particularly if he could “ride my mountain bike.”
Asked if he spoke French, Bush seemed surprised. “No, I can’t,” he admitted with a grin. “I can barely speak English.”