By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 25, 2006
KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine, Aug. 24 -- President Bush returned to his parents' century-old oceanfront retreat here Thursday for the first time in his second term, putting aside the troubles of the world to some extent for a brief spell of fishing and family.
After a morning flight on Air Force One, Bush wasted little time getting started with his four-day weekend, heading out with his father, George H.W. Bush, and daughter Jenna for a fishing trip aboard Fidelity III, the former president's boat. No word on whether either angler-in-chief caught anything.
As on any presidential vacation, Bush could not entirely free himself from the job as he engaged in a little telephone diplomacy to help assemble a U.N. stabilization force for Lebanon and rally international pressure against Iran's nuclear program. He telephoned Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the morning, then issued a statement in the afternoon thanking French President Jacques Chirac for agreeing to send more troops to Lebanon.
The president will also find the volatile domestic debate over the war in Iraq following him here as protesters aligned with peace activist Cindy Sheehan plan to picket a Bush family wedding Saturday. Sheehan and her supporters have made it their mission to follow the president on his vacations to confront him about the war.
In a preemptive move of sorts, Bush met on his arrival here at an elementary school with families of five slain service members -- three who died in Iraq, one killed in Afghanistan and another killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon. The president often meets with relatives of the fallen, and, as usual, Thursday's hour-long session was behind closed doors with no public comments or photographs.
Still, the visit to the rocky Maine coast was meant to be a last chance for Bush to relax before embarking on a pair of emotionally and politically delicate trips and then heading into a high-stakes campaign season. The day after returning from Kennebunkport on Sunday, Bush plans to head to the Gulf Coast to mark the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and soon after will travel to the sites of terrorist attacks to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Much as his parents love it, the family compound at Walker's Point is not the president's favorite getaway, but he limited his stay at his cherished ranch outside Crawford, Tex., to nine days this summer. Last year's month-long sojourn in Texas stirred anger among critics who complained that he was slow to cut short his vacation when Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans.
Bush takes pride in his Texas identity and often plays down his New England roots. Just this week, for instance, he playfully eschewed his family's home region in discussing Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman's independent campaign in Connecticut, saying he had no plans to go support Lieberman's bid. "I'm going to stay out of Connecticut," Bush said.
"You were born there," a reporter reminded him.
"Shhh," Bush replied.
The last time he came here was August 2004 for the wedding of his nephew George P. Bush, son of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R). It took another wedding to bring the president back, the Saturday nuptials of Walker Stapleton and Jennifer Bertocchi. Stapleton is the son of the former president's cousin Dorothy Walker Stapleton and her husband, Craig Roberts Stapleton, once a partner with George W. Bush in ownership of the Texas Rangers baseball team and now the presidentially appointed U.S. ambassador to France.
Antiwar groups affiliated with Sheehan plan to rally as close as they can get to the wedding at St. Ann's Episcopal Church, near Walker's Point. "Join with people of conscience to call for an end to the war in Iraq and say NO! to the Bush Agenda," reads an online recruitment pitch for the demonstration.