US President George W. Bush (2nd L) and U.S. first lady Laura Bush (L) welcome French President Nicolas Sarkozy (C) to the Bush family residence in Kennebunkport, Maine, August 11, 2007. [Reuters]
KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine - US President Bush, using all the trappings of his family's oceanfront estate, worked on a cozier relationship with France and its new president Saturday.
Bush welcomed Nicolas Sarkozy, the French leader known for his fast-paced style who may also be this White House's last true chance for better relations between the two nations.
"He's bringing a good brain, good vision and goodwill," Bush said from his parents' compound, which juts out like a finger pointing into the Atlantic Ocean.
Bush called Sarkozy a friend who could be counted on to speak frankly.
"We have had good disagreements — on Iraq, in particular," Bush acknowledged about the frayed U.S.-France partnership. "But I've never allowed disagreements to not find other ways to work together."
Sarkozy, visiting Bush for the first time as France's president, came with plenty of his own warm words. He focused on more than two centuries of united history between the countries, thanking the U.S. for sacrificing lives to help defend France in time of war.
"That is a lot more important than Mr. Sarkozy or Mr. Bush," he said. "Because after Mr. Bush, and after Mr. Sarkozy, we'll continue to be friends of the Americans."
All the effusiveness was intended to be a message to the world that diplomatic life is on the upswing for the U.S. and France. It comes in contrast to the bitter relationship with former French president Jacques Chirac, who clashed with Bush most notably over Iraq.
Sarkozy, too, acknowledged differences but downplayed them.
"Do we agree on everything? No," he said, an apparent reference to the divisive Iraq war. "Because maybe even within a family there are disagreements, but we are still a family. And we may be friends and not agree on everything, but we are friends."
Privately, Bush and Sarkozy met for about 50 minutes for what the U.S. president called a "heart-to-heart" talk. The former president sat in on the session with them.
The topics included Iran, where Bush is seeking Sarkozy's aid in thwarting Iran's suspected pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Other world hotspots — Darfur and Lebanon among them — were likely discussed, but the White House refused to divulge details.
The French president was treated to a true day in the life of the Bush experience.
There was the greeting of handshakes and hugs from two presidents — the current one and his dad, former President George H.W. Bush, who owns the Kennebunkport compound. They were joined by President Bush's wife, Laura; his mother, Barbara; and other family all around.
The Bush grandchildren even made colorful signs to herald Sarkozy's arrival. Bush said it was an important signal to Sarkozy that he was invited to meet the whole family.
As if to pound home the point that the event was a casual one, the White House put no seafood entree on the menu in a region renowned for its lobster. Instead, the visiting president got American picnic fare of hot dogs, hamburgers, baked beans and fresh dessert.
"If he feels like it, he can have him a piece of blueberry pie," Bush declared.
Sarkozy also got whisked away for a ride on a speed boat, with the former president at the helm and President Bush at his side. They soaked in a sparkling summer day in Maine.
Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino said the president looked forward to seeking Sarkozy next in September, at the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Sarkozy gives Bush a chance to shore up support in the core of Europe, although the new leader has clearly echoed Chirac's opposition to the Iraq war.
Meanwhile, Saturday's event sustained a setback before it started.
Sarkozy's wife, Cecilia, canceled at the last minute because she and two of their kids were sick — a notable absence. Sarkozy explained that they had come down with sore throats.
"We're disappointed she's sick, but we understand," Bush said. "That happens sometimes in life."
In France, Sarkozy caused a considerable stir by opting to take a vacation in the United States — seen as a sign of his pro-American tendencies. He chose Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, N.H., about 50 miles from the Bush compound known as Walker's Point.
Bush said he would go to France if Sarkozy invited him. But he didn't try hiding the fact that he prefers his ranch in central Texas, where his vacation continues on Monday.
After indulging the media by fielding some questions — and then prodding the talkative Sarkozy to do the same — Bush wrapped up their brief appearance on his own terms.
"Thank you," he said. "We've got to go eat a hamburger."
Hours after Sarkozy left town, Bush attended the wedding ceremony of Cary Gottesman. She is the daughter of Bush's longtime friends from Texas, Sandy and Lisa Gottesman, and the brother of Bush's former personal aide, Blake Gottesman.