Bush and Fox: geopolitical version of the two amigos

Both men wear cowboy boots. Both are at home on the ranch. Is it Roosevelt- Churchill all over again?

Mexico's President Vicente Fox was scheduled to drop by the White House yesterday for a half-hour visit. Nothing urgent. He just happened to be in town and thought he would look in on his new friend - you know, president to president, rancher to rancher, neighbor to neighbor.

Or as our Spanglish president might say, amigo to amigo.

The visit was their third in just over three months - highly unusual for a new US chief executive. It's a sign that the Bush-Fox friendship may be headed for the presidential best-buddies hall of fame - where it might take a place alongside other great partnerships: Bill Clinton and Tony Blair; Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher; Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat; Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

These former leaders of the free world tended to favor British pals, a natural inclination, considering the language, history, and geopolitics of their times. But that's what makes this budding friendship so unusual. It's bringing attention to a completely different part of the world - a part that has suffered from US neglect, and even condescension, in the past.

"It is rather unprecedented that a president meet a Mexican president three times in the course of three months, but I think it's something of a sign of things to come," says a US official who has watched the leaders practice their Texas two-step. "It reflects a personal bond, but also extends beyond that to an evolving relationship that has tremendous potential for greater depth, greater cooperation," he says.

Early-to-bed, early-to-rise men, the two share similar styles. They are both plain speakers. (When President Bush visited the Fox ranch in February, for instance, he openly gave the thumbs-down to broccoli when asked by a reporter about his least favorite vegetable. Broccoli is a big crop at Mr. Fox's place.) They also both favor informality - though they'll get a hefty dose of trumpets and fanfare when Fox makes a state visit to Washington, the first on Mr. Bush's calendar, this fall.

The stiff formality of the Oval Office has led many American presidents to invite foreign counterparts to the woodsy cabins at Camp David, to their homes - or to favorite restaurants.

Bill Clinton and Helmut Kohl loved to share stories over stuffed ravioli, hot-and-cold antipasti, and fried calamari at Filomena's, an Italian restaurant in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood.

"Kohl's a marvelous, engaging bear of a man and a wonderful storyteller," says former national security adviser Sandy Berger, who joined the two leaders in the restaurant's back room. "The two had a very warm relationship."

The informality can go a little far. Churchill had a habit of walking through the White House family quarters late at night in the buff - a bit disconcerting to the lady of the house, Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Bush-Fox relationship hasn't yet approached that stage. But in February, the Mexican leader did have his backyard neighbor down to his San Cristobal ranch - the Texan president's first foreign trip - where an exuberant Bush planted a kiss on Fox's mother's cheek and told her, "You look great!" - as if he'd known her all his life. Fox's mom presented Laura Bush with a pizza-sized plate of cookies.

Bush seems ready to meet with his Mexican counterpart any chance he gets. When the two were at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec last month, time ran out on their one-on-one meeting, so Bush asked Fox to ride with him in his limo to the next event.

In many ways the men appear to be two sides of the same coin. Both became state governors after years of managerial work in industry that taught them to trust the private sector to create prosperity. Both men prefer to retreat to their ranches when they want to get away. Bush sizes Fox up as "the kind of man you can look in the eye and know he's shooting straight with you."

Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, Fox's national security adviser, points to this friendly frankness as the rapport that's necessary to tackle tough issues like migration, drugs, energy, and water. It was on full display, he says, when the two met at San Cristobal and discussed the substantial water debt Mexico owes the United States after years of drought have prevented Mexico from paying it back.

"Bush was easygoing. He said, 'Let's look for a reasonable solution,' " Zinser says. "So the two presidents got out calculators, and even though neither of them knows the issue technically, they were able to look at it and even joke about the big amounts of water they were talking about. It was the way two good neighbors would approach a common problem."

Relations between Mexican and American presidents have often been strained, dancing around taboo subjects like immigration. The ties are frequently defined by Mexico's dependence on its powerful northern neighbor - as when the US helped bail Mexico out of its peso crisis in 1995. But Fox and Bush seem to be starting off on more equal footing.

Of course, there are political risks for any Mexican president appearing too close a friend of the United States. Much of the Mexican press continues to assume that America's friendship with Mexico is largely driven by a desire to gain control of the country's oil and gas.

But Zinser says Fox is motivated to build a "relationship based on trust between two countries that have felt such distance over the years."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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