By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 21, 2005
BEIJING, Nov. 20 -- After all the pomp and circumstance, after all the mind-numbing statements in all the mind-numbing meetings, President Bush finally seemed happy.
He slipped into athletic shorts, plonked a helmet on his head and jumped onto his mountain bicycle ready to race off with the Chinese Olympic bicycling team.
"How do you say, 'Take it easy on the old man'?" he asked jovially.
Not to worry. They did.
For an hour Sunday afternoon, the commander in chief took a break from the worries of the world and pushed himself against a half-dozen twenty-something athletes for a bracing ride around a Beijing training facility. At an appearance with Chinese President Hu Jintao just a few hours earlier, he had seemed flat and listless, his voice drained of energy, but zipping over the rugged trails put some air back in his tires.
"Remind you of Crawford?" Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press shouted at him as he raced around a bend.
"Better than Crawford!" he replied.
For the president, it was a rare moment of fun on an otherwise dreary overseas trip. In five years in the presidency, Bush has proved a decidedly unadventurous traveler, an impression undispelled by the weeklong journey through Asia that wraps up Monday. As he barnstormed through Japan, South Korea and China, with a final stop in Mongolia still to come, Bush visited no museums, tried no restaurants, bought no souvenirs and made no effort to meet ordinary local people.
"I live in a bubble," Bush once said, explaining his anti-tourist tendencies by citing the enormous security and logistical considerations involved in arranging any sightseeing. "That's just life."
The Bush spirit trickles down to many of his top advisers, who hardly go out of their way to sample the local offerings either. A number of the most senior White House officials on the trip, perhaps seeking the comforts of their Texas homes, chose to skip the kimchi in South Korea to go to dinner at Outback Steakhouse -- twice. (Admittedly, a few unadventurous journalists joined them.)
First lady Laura Bush usually has more interest in looking around. In Pusan, a bustling port city perched on the sea against the backdrop of woodsy foothills in southeastern South Korea, she went to the Metropolitan Simin Municipal Library to read to orphans and the Pusan Metropolitan Museum to check out an exhibition of traditional costumes and palatial silk flowers. Here in Beijing, she explored the Ming Tombs, the underground chambers where 13 emperors are buried.
She has had little luck enticing her husband into joining her over the years. The first time the Bushes traveled to China together in their current capacity, she had to tell him to slow down as he tried to race through a tour of the Great Wall. She once persuaded him to go to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, only to see him burn through the place in 30 minutes. He dispensed with the Kremlin cathedrals in Moscow in seven minutes. He flatly declined an Australian invitation to attend the Rugby World Cup while down under.
Bush's lack of adventure on this trip seemed all the more apparent given what else he had to do. Particularly in Pusan, where the 21 presidents and prime ministers of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum were meeting, Bush's schedule was heavy with official acronym-driven events that could put even the wonkiest to sleep.
Over two days at APEC, Bush and the others talked about the DDA negotiations and the Bogor Goals in advance of the WTO meeting. He discussed the one-China policy and the three communiques, not to mention the second session of the fifth round of the six-party talks on North Korea. Bush met with the ASEAN folks and the ABAC folks on the sidelines of the meetings at the BEXCO facility. No word, though, on whether he read the CTI report on the TILF activities, which discussed "the revised/enhanced CAPs."
The president's only concessions to sightseeing were visits to ancient temples in Japan and South Korea with the leaders of those nations. At the Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto, Japan, originally constructed in 1397 as a shogun's residence, Bush wandered past the sacred Buddha relics amid an exquisite garden and pond.
As Bush was led into the temple, he removed his shoes per custom.
"I wonder if my socks have any holes," he fretted.
Laura Bush told him not to worry.
Afterward the president rendered a spare, one-word verdict. "Beautiful," he declared.
At the Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, South Korea, first built in 751 and rebuilt after invaders destroyed it, the Bushes examined the wooden buildings and stone pagodas as a gong sounded solemnly and female drummers pounded on drums suspended on racks. The Bushes joined with their South Korean counterparts to ring a large green metal bell. Each couple took one side of the four-foot-long wooden pole suspended by chains, pulled it back and let it go to slam into the bell. The foursome let out seven gongs.
Bush also gamely put on a pastel blue Korean turumagi coat with the flowing sleeves and the bow on the front, just as the 20 other leaders did for the final APEC photograph. It's a tradition for the host country to provide matching native wear for all the heads of state and governments. Bush usually grins and bears it, just as his friend Russian President Vladimir Putin does. Afterward, White House counselor Dan Bartlett noted, "It's a race usually between he and President Putin to get it off."
The other race, the one between him and the Chinese athletes, went predictably enough. The athletes, three men and three women, dutifully let him win. Bush was hardly fooled. "It is clear that I couldn't make the Chinese Olympic cycling team," he noted later.
Seeming reinvigorated after changing back into his suit, Bush decided to take questions from the pool of reporters following him. After some back and forth about Iraq and China, Ken Herman of Cox News Service asked why in the earlier session with Hu the president had "seemed a little off your game."
"Have you ever heard of jet lag?" Bush asked.
"Well, good. That answers your question."
Herman had another. But Bush had had enough and headed for the exit.
Except that the double doors he picked to leave through were locked.
Sheepishly, Bush turned back to the press. "I was trying to escape," he said. "It didn't work."