CRAWFORD, Texas – President Bush has turned his remote ranch into a stage for down-home diplomacy, where a barbecue grill and a pickup truck have become his favorite tools for dealing with world leaders.
The 1,600-acre property in central Texas is a place where aides say the president feels most comfortable and can spend more get-to-know-you time with his guests than in hurried Washington. On Thursday, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe (search) will be the 14th foreign leader to visit the ranch.
Bush's dog once wandered through a press conference with the Australian prime minister. The president led the Saudi crown prince by the hand through blooming bluebonnets. And Russia's president was treated to a hoedown with cowboy cooks and a swing band.
"You only invite your friends into your house," Bush said when Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) became the first head of state to visit in November 2001. "Occasionally, you let a salesman in, or two."
The ranch is outside Crawford, a one-stoplight town with 700 residents.
Ranch visits have been a reward, for example when Bush hosted leaders from Europe, Australia and Japan who supported the war in Iraq. He's also used ranch invitations as an enticement, like when he tried to persuade China's president to help pressure North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons program.
Bush has used his private residence for entertaining heads of state in a manner unlike any other president in 40 years. The others have preferred to host their counterparts at the White House or the presidential retreat at Camp David (search).
Except for last year when he was campaigning for re-election, Bush has spent every August at his ranch since becoming president. With this trip, he has made 51 ranch visits.
Perhaps it's something about their Texas roots, but the last president to practice diplomacy at his home was Lyndon Johnson (search), who owned a ranch about 100 miles south of the one Bush now owns.
Johnson's first guest was Ludwig Erhard, chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, in December 1963. Presidential historian Thomas Alan Schwartz of Vanderbilt University said the Germans at first misunderstood the ranch invitation — thinking it was a slight compared with the White House — but the visit turned out to be a success. Johnson served Erhard barbecue and gave him a 10-gallon hat.
"There's sort of an odd similarity" between the way Bush and Johnson went back to Texas," Schwartz said, pointing out that neither president grew up on a ranch. "Having a ranch is sort of a symbol of status in Texas."
There are no horses on Bush's Prairie Chapel Ranch. He calls himself a "windshield rancher" and has delighted in giving VIPs a tour in his white pickup or on his John Deere Gator. Foreign dignitaries also usually get a Southern-inspired meal, like the fried catfish, black-eyed pea slaw, mesquite smoked beef brisket and pork ribs served to Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
Meetings also are far less formal than those in the White House — the dress code calls for an open collar shirt with no tie and, at least for Bush, cowboy boots and a big belt buckle.
There are often weighty matters at play behind the hospitality. Bush has pressured the leaders of China and Japan to help stop North Korea's nuclear ambitions, discussed plans for Middle East peace with the heads of Egypt, Israel and Britain and has plotted Saddam Hussein's removal with his war allies.
It was at the ranch that Bush, with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar at his side, announced the United States would submit a new resolution to the U.N. Security Council to set the stage for war against Iraq.
Bush made it clear that those who were against him wouldn't get the honor of coming to Crawford. Angered at French President Jacques Chirac's opposition to the war, Bush said, "I doubt he'll be coming to the ranch any time soon."
But a ranch rejection can cut both ways. Mexican President Vicente Fox was to be the first head of state to visit Bush's ranch, but he snubbed the invitation to protest the Texas execution of a convicted police killer that Fox said was a Mexican national.
The dispute eventually faded, and Fox this year became one of only two foreign leaders to visit the ranch twice. The other was Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a desert kingdom that the U.S. relies on for oil imports. The friendship between the two nations was shaken by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and Arab anger over U.S. support for Israel.
Bush said after Abdullah's first visit that the two forged a personal bond in five hours of talks that went two hours over schedule and included a pickup truck ride through the woods. Still, the two exchanged some blunt talk — Abdullah voiced his disapproval of Bush's policy toward Israel and Bush raised concerns about Saudis inciting anti-Israel terror.
Four months later, Bush made a further conciliatory gesture by inviting Prince Bandar bin Sultan (search), the Saudi ambassador to the United States, who brought six of his eight children to the ranch.
When he prepared for Putin's visit, Bush said someone who gets to see Texas gets to know his values. "The best diplomacy starts with getting to know each other," the president said.