By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 1, 2006
GRACELAND, America, June 30 -- If wise men say only fools rush in, then on this day, at least, President Bush heeded the wise men.
It was one thing to take his friend, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, to Memphis to visit what evidently is now the nation's most important tourist site. But the president drew a line Friday when the wavy-haired Japanese leader began crooning Elvis songs.
" Love me tender, " Koizumi sang in a deep baritone that bore a fair approximation of the King, if the King had been from Tokyo. Standing in front of the stone waterfall in the Jungle Room here at Graceland, complete with avocado shag carpet on both floor and ceiling, Bush laughed but did not join in.
Just as well. The image of the politically struggling president lamenting his own heartbreak hotel might have left his advisers all shook up. This was a day for friendship, rock-and-roll and bad puns as Bush embarked on what even he called an "unusual experience," quite possibly the most memorable diplomatic pleasure trip of his presidency.
As a farewell gift to Koizumi, one of his best overseas friends and a longtime Elvis aficionado making his final U.S. visit before retiring in September, Bush organized a special trip to the mansion where the legendary singer lived and died. The mecca of fans everywhere closed itself to ordinary tourists for the first time since opening in 1982 as it played host to its first sitting president. Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley flew in for the occasion.
If the president stuck to understated good humor, Koizumi plunged into the spirit of the occasion, mugging for cameras in Elvis's sunglasses, belting out some of his favorite lyrics, serenading Lisa Marie and even mimicking her father's famous stage moves. The prime minister, who once released a CD of his favorite Elvis songs, gleefully checked out the extravagant concert costumes and the pink Cadillac on the lawn and the wall after wall of gold records.
"My dream come true," Koizumi said, after singing a few words of "The Impossible Dream" to make the point.
While they were in town, the president and prime minister also visited another landmark, the National Civil Rights Museum next to the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It was such a last-minute addition to the trip that the White House tracked civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks down at his dentist's office Friday morning to ask him to show the visitors around.
That Bush would take the time to come to Graceland testifies to the strength of his personal bond with Koizumi, first forged on the grass at Camp David in 2001 when they played catch, traded baseball stories and talked about favorite movies such as "High Noon."
Bush is at best an accidental tourist. He once raced through the Kremlin cathedrals in Moscow in seven minutes flat, did the sprawling Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in a half-hour and turned to go soon after arriving at the Great Wall of China. He declined an invitation to visit the Taj Mahal altogether while in India, pleading lack of time.
Yet he managed to carve out eight hours to fly here from Washington, trailed by a media throng the likes of which rarely accompanies him to, say, a Medicare speech in Missouri. About 300 journalists showed up, in fact, and a press center was set up in the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum featuring his 1956 purple Cadillac Eldorado convertible, the 1960 MG used in "Blue Hawaii" and the rest of his fleet. Tourists circled the journalists under the giant disco ball as if they were another exhibit.
Everyone tried to get into the act. The Air Force One crew played "Love Me Tender" and "Don't Be Cruel" over the intercom system as the president, Laura Bush and Koizumi boarded. Elvis movies were made available for viewing during the flight to Memphis. For breakfast, the King's favorite fried peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches, with 36 grams of fat apiece, were served on the plane. Bush and Koizumi politely passed, although White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten gave it a try, reportedly to his regret.
When Bush and Koizumi arrived at Graceland, a small clutch of activists from the International Fund for Animal Welfare gathered nearby to protest Japan's whaling policies, featuring four Elvis impersonators holding up signs such as "Don't Be Cruel."
But nothing would spoil Koizumi's day, which came complete with the gift of a vintage Elvis poster. He checked out the triple televisions embedded in the walls of the yellow-and-blue basement entertainment room with the mirrored ceiling. He was shown the pool table in the billiard room festooned with 350 yards of multicolored fabric covering the walls and ceiling. He and Bush shared what a Graceland spokesman called "private time" in the Meditation Garden where Elvis and his parents are buried next to an eternal flame.
By the time he got to the Jungle Room, decorated after Elvis's memory of Hawaii, Koizumi was ready to perform.
He smiled at Lisa Marie, her brown hair streaked with blond.
"You look like Elvis," he told her.
" Arigato ," she answered, expressing thanks.
"My birthday is the same as Elvis," he noted.
"Even now," he added, "I often listen to Elvis CDs."
"You're a pretty good Elvis singer," Bush offered.
Koizumi demurred. "I'm not impersonator," he said.
But Washington Times reporter Joseph Curl recognized the moment of opportunity. "Let's hear some," he called out.
And Koizumi obliged. He started with a few words from "Love Me Tender," then segued into "Can't Help Falling in Love."
"I thought you were going to do 'Blue Suede Shoes,' " Bush said.
The first lady of the country and the onetime first ladies of music came over to pose for pictures. Koizumi wrapped his arm around Lisa Marie. "Hold me close, I want to hold you tight," he crooned to her.
Priscilla showed the prime minister a few of her former husband's personal items, including a pair of sunglasses that a museum employee in white gloves had gingerly placed on a table minutes before.
Koizumi eagerly grabbed them and slapped them on. Then, in the moment that thrilled television producers around the world, he crouched, seemed to play a bit of air guitar and emulated the late singer's motions while belting out, "Glory, glory, hallelujah."
The president kept his singing voice and dance moves to himself but seemed to enjoy the show. He wanted Koizumi to have a good time. On this day, Mission Accomplished. "I knew he loved Elvis," Bush said. "I didn't realize how much he loved Elvis."