Bush, Koizumi bond over Elvis at Graceland tour


  • World
  • Saturday, 01 Jul 2006

By Caren Bohan and George Nishiyama

MEMPHIS (Reuters) - President George W. Bush took devout Elvis fan Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on a road trip to Graceland on Friday to pay homage to the King of Rock-n'-Roll, underscoring the allies' "Love Me Tender" bond. 

Wrapping up a two-day summit with Koizumi that touched on the North Korean nuclear threat and world trade talks, the two leaders were ready for a "A Little Less Conversation" as they boarded Air Force One to head to Memphis. 

U.S. President George W. Bush (L-R), Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Lisa Marie Presley and Priscilla Presley stand for photos in front of Elvis Presley's Graceland Mansion in Memphis, Tennessee, June 30, 2006. (REUTERS/Jeff Mitchell)

For Koizumi, 64, who shares a birthday with Elvis Presley and whose wavy hairstyle resembles that of the singer, the tour of Presley's Graceland mansion was the chance of a lifetime. 

"It's like a dream," he told reporters. 

But the trip had a diplomatic element as well, as an opportunity for Bush to nurture an already close friendship between the United States and Japan and offer a parting gift to Koizumi who is stepping down in September. Koizumi has been one of Bush's staunchest allies in the war on terrorism. 

Joined by Bush's wife, Laura, the leaders were given the royal treatment as they pulled up to the mansion, where a pink Cadillac was parked outside. Elvis's daughter, Lisa Marie, and his ex-wife, Priscilla, gave the trio a private tour. 

As the first sitting president to visit Graceland, Bush received an original Elvis belt buckle from the singer's estate. Koizumi was given a vintage movie poster and Laura Bush got a "tender loving care" necklace. 

HOLD ME TIGHT 

On a part of the tour where the press was allowed in, Koizumi, known in Japan for his eccentricities and keen political instincts, could not resist belting out a few lines from Elvis's songs. 

As the three posed for pictures amid the Polynesian decor of the "Jungle Room," Koizumi put his arm around Lisa Marie Presley and said, "Hold me close, hold me tight", the opening line of Elvis', "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You". 

Bush, who often cites the turnaround in U.S.-Japanese relations since World War Two, called the Graceland visit a reminder of the closeness between the countries now and told reporters it was a "joy to be here." 

Bush and Koizumi, who both love baseball, became good friends five years ago after a game of catch at Camp David. Later that year, Koizumi pledged his strong support for the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks. 

The Japanese prime minister also took a big political risk in sending troops to Iraq, though they are now being drawn down. 

On the Graceland trip, Koizumi was not the only member of the entourage to ham it up. 

On the plane ride over, White House spokesman Tony Snow briefed reporters wearing big, gaudy, sunglasses with thick gold-colored frames. 

On the menu aboard Air Force One was fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, an Elvis favorite. 

If the trip -- by far one of the most unusual leader summits Bush has taken part in -- had a political aspect to it, that was just fine with tourist Nate Coleman. 

"I think it's cool. They've got to meet somewhere," said Coleman, 31, a singer-songwriter from California. 

(Additional reporting by Tabassam Zakaria) 

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