By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
At their get-acquainted meeting at Camp David, President Bush recounted to Gordon Brown a briefing by a White House aide who told Bush that the new British prime minister used to be a rugby star -- confusing Brown with a man of the same name who played forward for the British Lions in the 1970s.
That, at least, is the version of the story proffered to reporters by Damian McBride, Brown's political adviser.
"Not true," Bush spokesman Gordon Johndroe responded when told of the account. The aide who briefed Bush, he said, knew there were two Gordon Browns.
It was a day of such disagreements.
Brown announced that "Afghanistan is the front line against terrorism" -- contradicting Bush's frequent claim that Iraq is the "central front" in that battle. While Bush spoke passionately of terrorists as "evil," Brown spoke of terrorism as "a crime." Where Bush described their meetings as "casual" and "relaxed," Brown found them to be "full and frank" -- diplomatic code for tough.
For domestic political reasons, Brown had to prove that he was not, as one of his ministers put it, "joined together at the hip" with Bush the way predecessor Tony Blair was. Others in Brown's government have criticized Bush's "unilateralist" ways and even his use of the phrase "war on terror." London's Daily Telegraph reported over the weekend that Brown "won't be U.S. poodle" -- a reference to Blair's fatal devotion to Bush.
Brown did as advertised. Seventy-seven months ago, Bush and Blair met for the first time, also at Camp David. Bush wore a bomber jacket; Blair wore a V-neck sweater. Bush spoke of their common love of sports and the newly discovered fact that they both used Colgate toothpaste.
This time, the two leaders faced the cameras in full business attire, even though they were on a golf driving range at the presidential retreat on a blazing-hot summer morning. Bush playfully raised such subjects as the staff's bowling competition and even ventured a brief mention of the long-ago toothpaste episode. Brown, by contrast, stood stiffly and read carefully from a prepared text -- he had to repeat one botched line -- at least until the wind set one of his papers aloft.
Their relations had been a bit stilted from the moment Brown arrived by helicopter Sunday night. A television microphone picked up their dialogue:
Brown: "It's a great pleasure to be at Camp David. It has so much history associated with it. Do you come here quite a bit?"
Bush: "I do -- a lot."
The president praised his new counterpart lavishly, much as he did with Blair. "I would describe Gordon Brown as a principled man who really wants to get something done," he announced. He lauded the strength of Brown's "soul," tested by family tragedy, and even celebrated a sense of humor that was not in evidence as Brown stood behind the lectern. "He's not the dour Scotsman," Bush vouched. "He's actually a humorous Scotsman."
Brown did not reciprocate. Cordial but not friendly, he eschewed praise for Bush in favor of the usual homage to the Special Relationship. "I'm very grateful to you for your hospitality" was as effusive as Brown got.
The Briton was discreet enough to give nuance and subtlety to his policy differences with Bush. While Bush has placed blame for the violence in Iraq solely on al-Qaeda -- he mentioned the terrorist group 95 times in a single speech about Iraq last week -- Brown tried to put it in context: "In Iraq, you're dealing with Sunni-Shia violence, you're dealing with the involvement of Iran, but you're certainly dealing with a large number of al-Qaeda terrorists."
Reporters tried to provoke a more open dispute. Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times inquired about Brown's view of the war on terror -- a sensitive subject since a member of his government said the term only strengthens terrorists.
Brown answered that "we're in a generation-long battle against terrorism" and added: "We are at one in fighting the battle against terrorism, and that struggle is one that we will fight with determination." But he again avoided mention of a "war."
With Blair's successor unwilling to be his playmate, Bush turned to the press corps for entertainment.
Before the president left the news conference, he advised BBC correspondent Nick Robinson: "You better cover up your bald head."
"I never knew you cared," Robinson said.
"I don't," Bush called back.
The president, after calling on Rutenberg in honor of his 38th birthday, observed to Brown: "Amazing country, Gordon -- a guy that's under 40 years old asking me and you questions."
"Six of my cabinet are under 40," Brown replied.
"You must be feeling damn old, then," Bush speculated.
Brown, 56, was probably feeling even older after the diet he was fed at Camp David. Sunday night brought beef tenderloin, peas with smoked bacon, and brownies. Monday morning found bacon and eggs, followed by cheeseburgers, fries, onion rings and banana pudding for lunch.
The British press called it the "Roast Beef Summit." But they shouldn't have been surprised. Rugby players have hearty appetites.