Patio diplomacy: a time-honored tradition for breaking the ice
Bush will host Russian President Vladimir Putin in Kennebunkport, Maine, on July 1.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.