Wealthy Frenchman

Friday, June 30, 2006

Velvet Elvis Diplomacy



Among the newspaper headlines preserved in Elvis's trophy room in Graceland, hanging next to his size-12 white leather shoes and rhinestone-studded gold lamé suit, is this gem from Aug. 12, 1957: "Rock 'n' Roll Banned, 'Hate Elvis' Drive Launched By Iran To Save Its Youth."

Datelined Tehran, the story began: "Rock 'n' roll has been banned in Iran as a threat to civilization. 'This new canker can very easily destroy the roots of our 6,000 years' civilization,' police said, before launching a 'Hate Elvis' campaign."

Half a century ago, Elvis was considered a wiggly threat to Muslim civilization. But yesterday, the president brought the Japanese prime minister to Elvis's gloriously campy time capsule to thank the fanatical Elvis fan for helping push democracy in the Muslim world.

Junichiro Koizumi seemed to be in an ecstatic trance. Standing near the indoor waterfall in the Jungle Room with Priscilla, Lisa Marie, Laura and George looking on, basking in the avocado glow of a 70's shag rug that covered floor and ceiling, the 64-year-old Japanese leader did Thin Elvis air guitar and Fat Elvis karate chops.

He grabbed the King's outsized tinted gold-rimmed glasses and slipped them on, as the curator who had handled them with white gloves watched in alarm. And he gamely sang heavily accented bits of "Love Me Tender," "Can't Help Falling in Love With You," "Fools Rush In," "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," and even let loose with "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah" until finally Priscilla Presley called out, "We need a karaoke machine!" He even cast Lisa Marie in the Ann-Margret role in his own fantasy "Viva Las Vegas," pulling her close to croon, "Hold me close, hold me tight."

"It's like a dream," bubbled Mr. Koizumi.

It was hard to remember anyone looking this happy in the gloomy cave of the Bush-Cheney administration, where more time is spent spanking allies than treating them.

Mr. Bush seemed out of his element. It's doubtful that W. had ever seen a round, mirrored, white fake-fur canopy bed before, much less an entire suit made of black faux fur. At one point, the president tried to cut off his overexcited guest from Tokyo, a city that loves its Elvis impersonator bars. But Mr. Koizumi would not be stopped.

Surrounded by monkey ceramics and ersatz cow skulls, W. tried to make a serious point about his road-trip summit, saying the visit was "a way of reminding us about the close friendship between our peoples."

In addition to being a respite from other bad news — getting disciplined by the Supreme Court on Gitmo and getting taunted again by Osama — the Graceland getaway was a triumph in personal diplomacy. That was the specialty of this president's father, who made a career of dragging befuddled world leaders off to baseball games, the Air and Space Museum, and sprints on his boat in Kennebunkport.

Poppy used such jaunts as a lubricant to diplomacy and an inducement to closer, chattier relationships. His less curious, less social son tends to think of personal diplomacy more in terms of rewards and punishments, just another way to give or withhold favors, depending on who is going along with his world view.

Yesterday's pilgrimage may have struck some as too kitschy, given that several youngsters in Memphis have been tragically shot by stray bullets recently. But at least goin' to Graceland was a rare display of expertise in the psychology of diplomacy, an area where this administration has been strangely tone-deaf. W. figured out what the Japanese leader was thinking, what he wanted and what mattered in his culture, and exploited it — unfortunately, waiting until Mr. Koizumi was almost out of office.

Bush officials went out of their way not to do this with Saddam when they failed to consider that he might be hyping his W.M.D. arsenal or toying with U.N. weapons inspectors as a chest-thumping exercise aimed at impressing other Arab leaders. The Bush team also repeatedly squandered chances to talk to the Iranians and the North Koreans, ignoring the ways in which the oddball leaders of those countries might be acting out of insecurity, envy, bluster, one-upsmanship and a desire to be respected — sort of how high school girls might behave if they had nukes.

With his small circle of pals and Iraq war defenders — Mr. Koizumi, Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi — drifting off the world stage, and with allies pulling back troops in Iraq, President Bush may soon be as isolated as Elvis was at the end. For the rest of his term and through history, W.'s Heartbreak Hotel is likely to be located in Baghdad.


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