Patio diplomacy: a time-honored tradition for breaking the ice

Bush will host Russian President Vladimir Putin in Kennebunkport, Maine, on July 1.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Relations between Washington and Moscow were tense. So President Dwight Eisenhower decided on a bold stroke: He'd invite Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to his house.

Not the White House, mind you, but Eisenhower's family farm in Gettysburg.

It worked, after a fashion. On Sept. 26, 1959, a visibly delighted Mr. Khrushchev powered through Gettysburg like a tank. He admired Ike's house, his cattle, and, especially, his assembled grandchildren. He told all the children what their names were in Russian, then invited them to Moscow and gave them little red stars to wear on their lapels.

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Khrushchev, in these surroundings, came off at his best: "genial, grandfatherly, folksy," remembered John Eisenhower, Ike's son, in a 1984 oral history interview.

When George W. Bush hosts Vladimir Putin at his family's Kennebunkport, Maine, compound on July 1, he'll be engaging in a time-honored American tradition: patio diplomacy.

Virtually all modern US presidents since Herbert Hoover have brought world leaders into their homes – both personal and ancestral – to escape the formality of the Oval Office and encourage freedom of discussion. It's a tactic often used when a geopolitical association has hit a rough patch. Sometimes the visits seem contrived – but sometimes, as with Khrushchev in 1959, they're oddly effective.

"The atmospherics are very different. The idea is those atmospherics will affect later private talks," says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

In some ways it's no surprise that President Putin should be Bush's partner in what some call the "lobster roll summit." The pair appear to get along on a personal level. Yet lately they've disagreed about issues from the fate of Kosovo to US plans to base missile defenses in Eastern Europe.

And some of their recent rhetorical exchanges have been sharp.

Most experts don't expect much substantive progress to come from the Bush-Putin meetings. At best, the US and Russia might agree to a joint study of missile-defense plans.

But both leaders may aspire to a change in tone, at the least.

"I really don't think that either of them want, as part of their legacy, a trashed US-Russian relationship," said Andrew C. Kuchins, Russia and Eurasia program director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, at a June 27 seminar.

Add to this the fact that the Bushes historically have been among the nation's primary practitioners of the art of patio diplomacy. President George W. Bush has had a steady stream of world leaders to his Texas ranch, including Putin. And when his father George H.W. Bush was chief executive, the Kennebunkport compound was virtually an adjunct West Wing.

But not every visitor took to Maine's salty air and summer sunshine.

British Prime Minister John Major did not even roll up his sleeves. But equally stiff French Prime Minister Francois Mitterrand warmed to the rocks and sea spray of Walker's Point, the Bushes' Kennebunkport house. His visit there helped seal strong French support for the Gulf War.

On one level, it's odd that the current president is hosting Putin at Walker's Point. After all, it's not his house; it's his father's.

But on another level, it might seem natural. An invitation for a July visit to the blast furnace that is Bush's Texas property might not be well received. Plus, Walker's Point is not just a house; it's Bush headquarters.

"It's about nine acres of the most coveted spot on the Atlantic shore and it's been the center of the Bush family for several generations," says historian Herbert Parmet, who toured the compound in the mid-1990s when researching his biography of George H.W. Bush.

Similarly, President John F. Kennedy often hosted world leaders at the Kennedy family's Hyannisport, Mass., waterfront compound. In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England to his Hyde Park estate for a picnic that featured a food previously unknown to the royals: hot dogs.

For the record, King George ate two.

In general, talks between a US president and another head of state are highly scripted, even at home. Topics are decided upon ahead of time, and raised in a mutually agreed upon order.

Still, surprises occur. In June 1973, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev visited President Nixon's home in San Clemente, Calif. Mr. Brezhnev became inebriated at a reception laid out for his arrival, according to the memoir of longtime USSR ambassador to the US Anatoly Dobrynin, and bent Nixon's ear with complaints about other Soviet notables.

That night, the guard outside Brezhnev's door had to forcibly turn away first lady Pat Nixon, who was apparently walking in her sleep, according to Ambassador Dobrynin.

For the guest, a summons to a US President's home is more prestigious than a visit to the presidential retreat of Camp David.

"It's a level of personal contact that both sides cherish," says Professor Jillson.And the forum can be useful.

At San Clemente, Brezhnev tried to warn the US about the mounting threat of a new Israeli-Arab conflict – though the Americans didn't pick up on the warning, and the Yom Kippur war followed in October

Khrushchev's visit to Gettysburg in 1959 helped deflate rising US-USSR tensions over the fate of Berlin. He seemed considerably more relaxed during the rest of his US visit, according to historical sources. In the following months, Soviet officials pestered their US counterparts as to whether Ike's grandchildren would be allowed to visit Moscow.

But after a US U-2 spy plane was downed over Soviet territory, the cold war began to spiral up in earnest.

And even before then, Ike's daughter-in-law, Barbara Eisenhower, had made her children throw out the red stars they'd received from Khrushchev.

"They were communist insignia," she said, indignantly, in a 1983 oral history interview. "I just didn't want them wearing souvenirs of his visit.

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