Politics » Politics Feature

POLITICS: George W.'s Un-Op Stop in Memphis



ABC's Jake Tapper, a self-acknowledged acolyte of the King's who made his journalistic bones as an online columnist for Salon, showed off his Elvis-themed tie Friday, as he - like The New York Times' Maureen Dowd and several score other national reporters - filed stories from the car museum across Elvis Presley Boulevard from Graceland.

That's as close as most observers - tourists, protesters, reporters what-have-you - got to the grounds of the late music icon's mansion, or to the National Civil Rights Museum, where President Bush, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi, and the rest of their party made an impromptu stop, or to the downtown Rendezvous Restaurant, where the two heads of state and a largish retinue of local officials finished off their highly private whirlwind tour of Memphis.

Let's get that straight from the outset: Memphis is where they were. That's worth emphasizing because the first AP story, by a traveling journalist, managed to mention Graceland at length without ever indicating where in these United States the place was.

(Note to Kevin Kane: Can you do your best henceforth to make sure that stories about Graceland, like those ubiquitous TV spots promoting St. Jude Hospital, deign to mention the city which hosts both places? No sense keeping that a secret, is there?)

Another reason for emphasizing the venue is that Memphians, either the John Q. or the media variety, got no closer to events for the most part than did residents of Cleveland or Albuquerque or wherever else who caught the pooled TV coverage on the evening news.

Four (count 'em, 4) local media representatives were allowed to accompany the presidential entourage. Eight MATA buses were pulled over to the western curb of E.P. Boulevard across from the King's mansion to prevent a crowd of tourists from having eye-level vision of the house and grounds.

Then the several score Elvis faithful, along with such protesters who showed up, were banished to a roped-in area at a considerable distance from the street.  Yes, yes, the protesters had permits to demonstrate on the sidewalk. Fahgidaboutit, this was a day in which the Secret Service could - and did--overrule all other arrangements.

What it amounts to was that Bush and his Japanese guest visited three highly real and culturally resonant places which showed up on the nation’s TV sets (and on the White House Web site and in daily blurbs by AOL, Microsoft et al.) only as three photo-op sets.

But they were un-ops, too. In the senses of access and local visibility, Friday’s ultra-cloistered visit was wholly unlike previous ones by the current president’s father, by former President Bill Clinton, or by President George W. Bush himself, who held a more or less open (if selectively stacked) seminar on his planned Social Security changes back in January of 2005.

Not only were the local and national media, Elvis fans, and the city’s population itself held at bay, so were most congressional staffers, even loyal Republican ones. “The state [Republican] office was responsible,” theorized one staffer. “The White House was responsible,” reasoned someone else, from Graceland’s orbit. And “grumbled” would have been an appropriate verb in those and several other cases.

Even the local state, and federal officials who ended up being part of the tour were notified late in the game. Most of them, like the media, received their detailed advisories only Wednesday evening or Thursday morning.

Attendance at the three venues by local dignitaries was in a de facto staggered pattern.

Air Force One was met at the airport by a welcoming party which prominently included Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and U.S. Attorney David Kustoff, who headed both of Bush's presidential campaign efforts in Tennessee.

Present at the Civil Rights Museum were Museum president, the Rev. Ben Hooks, and the museum's board chairman, Pitt Hyde.

The group lunching with the president at the Rendezvous included U.S. congressman Harold Ford Jr. and the two Tennessee senators, Lamar Alexander and Bill Frist.

Present at all events was the president's chief political strategist, Karl Rove.

Vignettes from the day included: Kustoff, who in a few short months has achieved a level of G-Man gravity that his predecessors never quite came by (or maybe never aspired to), standing sentinel outside the Civil Rights Museum alongside a Service Service agent; a Democratic operative who phoned a reporter he assumed to be with the touring party, offering $200 for a photograph of District Attorney General Bill Gibbons with Bush. (Helpful hint: Call Gibbons yourself; he’ll probably give you one for freee.); and the woman from Arkansas who strayed a downtown-block away from her husband to catch a peek of the presidential motorcade and was told by a policeman, obeying Secret Service orders, that she could not retrace her steps to rejoin her spouse until further notice. “Might as well get a divorce,” someone suggested.

Here, courtesy of local pool reporter Zach McMillan of The Commercial Appeal, are two transcripts, furnished by the White House, of reported exchanges of the two heads of state from inside Graceland, where they, along with First Lady Laura Bush, were given an expanded version of the usual tour by the King’s ex-wive Priscilla Presley and his daughter Lisa Marie Presley:

White House Transcript #1:

PRESIDENT BUSH:  It is such a joy to be here to Graceland.  It's my first visit.

PRIME MINISTER KOIZUMI:  My first visit, too.

PRESIDENT BUSH:  The Prime Minister's first visit.

PRIME MINISTER KOIZUMI:  It's like a dream, with President Bush and Presley's daughter.

PRESIDENT BUSH:  Thank you all for greeting us.  You're awfully kind to be here.

PRIME MINISTER KOIZUMI:  You look like Elvis. 

MS. LISA MARIE PRESLEY:  (Speaks Japanese.)

PRESIDENT BUSH:  The visit here is an indication of how well-known Elvis was around the world.  A lot of people are still singing Elvis Presley songs here in the states and there's a lot of people who love Elvis Presley in Japan, including the Prime Minister.  This visit is also a way of reminding us about the close friendship between our peoples.

And, Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for agreeing to come here.  A lot of Americans are thrilled you're here, particularly at Graceland.  It means a lot to our country that you would be that interested in one of America's icons, Elvis Presley.

PRIME MINISTER KOIZUMI:  My birthday is the same as Elvis.

PRESIDENT BUSH:  You and Elvis were born on the same day?


PRIME MINISTER KOIZUMI:  Even now, I often listen to Elvis CDs.

PRESIDENT BUSH:  Still listen to Elvis CDs?


PRESIDENT BUSH:  You're a pretty good Elvis singer.

PRIME MINISTER KOIZUMI:  I'm not impersonator.  (Sings Elvis songs.)

PRESIDENT BUSH:  I thought you were going to do "Blue Suede Shoes."  Thank you.

White House Transcript #2:

PRESIDENT BUSH:  First of all, the Prime Minister and I would like to thank Priscilla and Lisa for their gracious hospitality.  And we thank the Graceland staff, as well, for arranging this unusual experience.  First of all, my presence here shows it's never too late to come to Graceland.  Laura and I are -- we've known Elvis Presley since we were growing up.  He's obviously a major part of our music history.  He had an international reputation.  His reputation was so strong that he attracted the attention of the now Prime Minister of Japan.

I was hoping the Prime Minister would want to come to Graceland.  I knew he loved Elvis -- I didn't realize how much he loved Elvis.  He not only knows Elvis' history, he can sing a pretty good Elvis song.  This visit here shows that not only am I personally fond of the Prime Minister, but the ties between our peoples are very strong, as well.

And so, again, to the Presleys, thank you all.  And Mr. Prime Minister, glad you joined us.  Want to say a few comments?

PRIME MINISTER KOIZUMI:  It's like a dream.  I never expected President come with me to visit Graceland.  There's Elvis song:  To Dream Impossible.  (Singing Elvis song.)  (Laughter.)  My dream came true.   Thank you very much for -- thank you.  Thank you very much for treating me nice, the Elvis song.  (Singing Elvis song.)  Thank you.

PRESIDENT BUSH:  We're going to go have some barbeque, thank you.

By one of those quirks of circumstances, former city councilman John Vergos, the proprietor of The Rendezvous, where that "barbeque" was to be had, was away on a pre-planed three-week vacation off in Australia .

“That’s where I’d like to be,” was the wistful comment last week from his brother, co-proprietor Nick Vergos, who served as host for the two heads of state and Mrs. Bush at a lunchtime affair which occasioned the erection of a special tent on Second Street to handle the presidential limousine and other elements of the day's logistical overflow.

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