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REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

This time, he's still got jokes, but there are no gaffes

The main down note for Bush at the G-8 talks is his stomach illness.

June 11, 2007|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

FUSHE-KRUJE, ALBANIA — In outward appearances, President Bush's demeanor during the last week has been that of a man whose poll ratings are in the vicinity of 82%, as they once were, rather than the 28% they are now.

He has teased, he has moved with assurance, he worked an excited crowd in this little Balkan town, and at the Group of 8 summit of major industrialized nations that ended Friday in Germany, he avoided the miscues of his previous trip to the annual gathering. He even found time for a bike ride.

The main down note, an intestinal upset Friday morning, threw Bush off his stride only momentarily, forcing him to send the summit "sherpa," the senior aide who paved the way in the pre-summit meetings, in his stead to closing sessions.

The president did seem less than energized the rest of Friday. Deputy White House Press Secretary Dana M. Perino said that on Saturday, when Bush met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, the president wasn't operating at "100%, but a higher percentage than he was yesterday."

Still, Bush sat down in Rome with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi for a lunch Saturday that was intestinally challenging for, if nothing else, its variety: Squid and amberjack salad with Italian chicory, pasta with grouper and scallop sauce and asparagus, sea bass escalope with clam sauce, vegetables, and a citrus fruit mousse with wild strawberry sauce.

By Sunday, he seemed to have put the illness behind him, plunging excitedly into a crowd of Albanians in this town half an hour's drive from the capital, Tirana.

The president grabbed at hands far into a crowd that lined the two-lane main street as residents reached toward him and delivered a feverish pummeling as they sought to touch him.

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Whether from experience or stomach virus, the president's behavior is a far cry from his rambunctiousness at the summit-ending lunch a year ago in St. Petersburg, Russia. There, he called out to the prime minister of Britain, "Yo, Blair," and spoke energetically while stuffing a roll in his mouth, issuing tough-sounding instructions for dealing with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

And he drew extensive fire for playfully squeezing the shoulders of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the G-8 leaders were sitting down.

Bush and Merkel have developed a high degree of public political simpatico that is the stark opposite of the difficulties he had with her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, over the Iraq war. Nonetheless, at their first encounter this year, they exchanged demure, even formal, handshakes.

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Merkel chose the summit site more than a year ago, deciding that her constituency in the country's northeast, once part of East Germany and still something of an economic backwater, needed the attention and business boost that an influx of influential visitors could bring.

Her attention to detail at the summit in Heiligendamm was such that she even kept an eye on the display of the official summit pin. At one point, she approached Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to adjust the way the pin sat on his suit jacket.

Putin, known for his seemingly forced thin-lipped smile, held true to form during many of his public appearances. During a 10-minute session with reporters after meeting with Bush to discuss missile defense, the Russian leader showed no emotion, even as Bush offered a smile and Putin offered the U.S. the use of a Soviet-era radar system in Azerbaijan for an antimissile network.

For Putin, the visit to the neighborhood was something of a homecoming. He built his early career in the Soviet Union's hierarchy as a KGB agent in the former German Democratic Republic, as East Germany was officially known.

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Bush met one day with a group of reporters on the grounds of the Kempinski Grand Hotel, the Baltic resort where the summit was held, and spoke about a speech he had given in Prague the day before, a reprise of his second inaugural address setting out a "freedom agenda" intended to promote democracy around the world.

When he finished his opening statement, a reporter said, "Can we ask some questions?"

"No," Bush joked, "That's all I wanted to tell you. Go on home. I feel so good about life, I'm not going to answer questions."

He then spent nearly 45 minutes parrying questions.

In Prague, the Czech capital, Bush met privately with President Vaclav Klaus. The two then spoke to reporters.

Foreshadowing the sort of encounter with journalists most politicians would seem to relish, the moderator announced, "This press conference is going to be without questions."

It was. Klaus and Bush each spoke for several minutes, delivering prepared statements, and then headed out the door.

james.gerstenzang @latimes.com

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