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Testing! Testing! Bush finds, again, that speaking softly isn't enough
RUSUTSU, Japan: At the gathering this week on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, the lunchtime microphones were on, again, capturing an unwitting President George W. Bush in high chitchat mode as he mingled before the meal.
It wouldn't be a Group of 8 summit meeting without a microphone mishap.
When leaders of the world's richest nations, the so-called Group of 8 - the United States, Japan, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Russia - gathered two years ago in St. Petersburg, President George W. Bush was caught using some blunt, colorful language as he munched on a roll during lunch.
For four exceedingly enlightening minutes, the world was treated to an unvarnished view of the American president as he expounded on everything from his penchant for Diet Coke to his long-winded fellow leaders.
"I'm not going to talk too damn long like the rest of them," he said.
At the gathering this week on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, the lunchtime microphones were on again, capturing an unwitting Bush in high chitchat mode as he mingled before the meal.
The life-of-the-party president waxed eloquent - O.K., maybe not so eloquent, but at least there was no profanity this time - on the health of his parents, his birthday and the corruption charges facing one of his best buddies in Europe, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, among other matters.
"Amigo! Amigo!" Bush called out cheerily - in Spanish - when he spotted Berlusconi. "How you doing, Silvio? Good to see you!"
Later, the president wondered about his former Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
"Did Putin come to see you since I saw you?" he asked Berlusconi. (He hadn't.)
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany walked in, clutching a newspaper featuring a photograph of Bush's father during a trip last week to Berlin. "His father," she explained to the other leaders.
The elder Bush, 84, has been slowing down since his hip-replacement surgery last year. His son looked concerned.
"How did he feel?" the president asked. "How did he look? Can he walk O.K.?"
"The walking is difficult for him," said Merkel, who had met with the elder Bush in Berlin.
"Yeah, I'm worried about him," Bush said.
The talk turned to the president's mother, who had knee-replacement surgery last month.
"Two knee operations, two knees at the same time," Bush said, "because she didn't want to rehab but once."
Holding court in the assembled group, Bush, who turned 62 here on Sunday, said that the steep hills of Hokkaido proved a biking challenge.
"So I got on my bicycle this morning," he said, "and got to the bottom of the hill and realized it was really tough to get up. When you're older, as you know . . ."
Someone asked the president about his birthday. He celebrated two days early, on the Fourth of July.
"Big party at the White House, and they had fireworks," he said. "My little girls were there."
Over in the corner, Bush spied Robert Zoellick, the head of the World Bank. The president's voice boomed: "Everybody know Zoellick, the World Bank man?"
Then it was back to Berlusconi. On Tuesday, the day after the lunch, an embarrassed White House issued a formal apology to the Italian prime minister for having distributed a biography to reporters that noted Berlusconi's "convictions on a number of corruption charges" - all overturned - and used the word "suave" to describe him. But at the lunch, Bush had a different take on Berlusconi's troubles.
"I read the courts are after you again," he told the prime minister, a note of outrage in his voice. "It's unbelievable. I've never seen anything like it. Constantly after you."
Funny, but at the next day's lunch, the microphones were cut off.
Every year, the leaders of the Group of 8 meet at some fancy place like the hot springs resort overlooking Lake Toya near here, to debate matters of international importance. And every year, they issue joint communiqués overrun with bureaucratic gobbledygook.
This year offered some truly mind-numbing prose:
On the global economy: "We are mindful of the interrelated nature of the issues surrounding the world economy. We remain committed to promoting a smooth adjustment of global imbalances through sound macroeconomic management and structural policies."
On aid to Africa: "In tackling the development agenda, we will take a multifaceted approach, promoting synergies among MDG-related development sectors."
On rising food prices: "The international community needs a fully coordinated response and a comprehensive strategy to tackle this issue in an integrated fashion."
These communiqués, whose true authors remain anonymous, are the product of months of intense negotiations by aides to the leaders - "sherpas," in G-8 lingo.
Alden Meyer, a climate-change expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, who is here this week, summed up the process this way: "They're fighting very hard over who gets to say very little."
Bush offered an alternative view: "This was a lot of meetings on important subjects," the president said as the meeting wrapped up, "and we accomplished a lot."
Birthday wishes for Bush were not the only wishes on the G-8 agenda this year.
The host of the meeting, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda of Japan, asked each leader to write personal wishes, to be hung from a bamboo tree as part of a traditional Japanese Tanabata ceremony. Tanabata, known as the "star festival," occurs each year on the seventh day of the seventh month, when, according to legend, two stars ordinarily separated by the Milky Way finally meet.
Bush's wish, typeset rather than written in his own hand, had its own starry quality - a parting missive, perhaps, from a president who will not be back when the Group of 8 meets in Italy next year.
"I wish for a world free from tyranny: the tyranny of hunger, disease and free from tyrannical governments," the president wrote. "I wish for a world in which the universal desire for liberty is realized. I wish for the advance of new technologies that will improve the human condition and protect our environment. I wish God's blessings on all. George W. Bush."
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