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Off the Beaten Path, Bush Takes a Detour to Graceland

Elvis has left the building … to the politicians.

The Memphis, Tenn., home of the King of Rock and Roll will host a summit of sorts Friday when President George W. Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi travel to Graceland for a personal tour of one of America's wackiest — and some may argue tackiest — tourist attractions.

While it's the first time a sitting president has taken diplomacy from the Oval Office to the Jungle Room, it's the latest in a long line of work-related sightseeing trips by the executive branch.

Long before Richard Nixon admired the Great Wall of China and Ronald Reagan lifted a pint in Ballyporeen, Ireland, Theodore Roosevelt blazed a trail to Central America, becoming the first president to take a trip abroad, according to the State Department. His visit? A 1906 trip to inspect the construction of the Panama Canal.

Though Reagan and other presidents have used sites such as Berlin's Brandenburg Gate as breathtaking backdrops to important speeches, some, like Bill Clinton, savored the meet-and-greet with the locals.

"Clinton was noted for wanting to see all of the key local sights and reveling in that," said Larry J. Sabato, the executive director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. "President Bush does not like to waste time on tourist attractions."

And yet, during his two terms in office, Bush has clocked some serious travel time to the world's wonders. He has made more excursions to national parks and monuments than any other president, according to David Barna, National Park Service chief of public affairs. Abroad, Bush has toured the Mokoldi Nature Reserve in Botswana and celebrated the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg in Russia.

The trip to Graceland, however, is a first for a president while in office, said Todd Morgan, director of media and creative development for Elvis Presley Enterprises.

"We've had many foreign ambassadors and certainly our share of entertainment celebrities, but we've never had a sitting U.S. president visit Graceland," Morgan said.

The first couple "look forward to introducing the prime minister to the beauty and warm hospitality of the people of the Volunteer State," White House press secretary Tony Snow said on June 13.

The White House declined to comment further.

The Graceland visit is a favor to a friend, Sabato said.

"[Bush] is doing it because he's been close to the Japanese prime minister and this the Japanese prime minister's choice because he's been an Elvis fan," Sabato said.

By widely published accounts, Koizumi is smitten with the hip-shakin' crooner. Along with sharing a Jan. 8 birthday with Elvis, the prime minister chose his 25 favorite Elvis tunes for a charity CD in 2002. Koizumi serenaded Bush on his birthday last year with Presley's 1956 hit "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You."

Tourist Diplomacy

U.S. leaders have been traveling abroad regularly since Teddy Roosevelt's initial visit to Panama.

President-elect Woodrow Wilson vacationed in Bermuda following the 1912 election and Herbert Hoover made a goodwill visit to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1928 as president-elect. Franklin D. Roosevelt chose to go fishing — twice — in the Bahamas.

Not every presidential sightseeing adventure has gone well. An assassin shot William McKinley in the Temple of Music at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901. He died a week later.

Since John F. Kennedy became "the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris" in 1961, presidents have used foreign visits to further agendas rather than gawk at tourist attractions.

"The tenor of politics has changed since Kennedy in terms of the use of PR and television and other presidents have just built on it," said Joan Hoff, a history professor at Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont.

Presidents now travel more frequently and more often for work, rather than pleasure.

"There are some politicians for whom a successful day is considered one where you get home to sleep in your own bed," said Sabato, noting that Bush will make the occasional touristy visit, but prefers to keep it to a minimum.

"He's all business," Sabato said. "He wants to do the business and then get home."

It's a marked difference from his international counterparts, who indulge in their personal pursuits while abroad.

Martial arts aficionado and Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin, for instance, has sparred with judo champs in Japan, and in March, he made a visit to the Shaolin Temple in China's Hunan Province, famed for its kung-fu monks.

Presidents abroad tend to "only do the politically correct visit honoring war heroes or battles and things like that and that makes sense from a political point of view," Hoff said.

Koizumi has raised eyebrows in Japan with repeat visits to the highly controversial Yasukuni Shrine for war dead, including men executed for war crimes in the 1930s and 1940s, in Tokyo.

"Of course no president would visit that particular Japanese shrine," Hoff said. "But Reagan did make a mistake of going to a cemetery where Nazis were buried."

Hoff was referring to the 1985 visit by Reagan to the Kolmeshohe Cemetery near Bitburg, a cemetery that held Nazi war dead. Reagan made the visit under the impression that it also contained American troops.

"You have to have such sympathy for presidents," Hoff said. "They can't know the intricacies of history and they can very often, especially abroad, bumble into things and make mistakes. Clearly their aides are going to know the intricacies of American history, but sometimes there's a real lacuna of information to say the least."

All Shook Up

Still, Graceland just may be the folksiest attraction ever visited by a state leader.

"The Graceland thing is a little bit over the top, but on the other hand, I've been there," Hoff said.

So too have a laundry list of celebrities.

While Dollywood can claim a visit by Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander and Disney World a royal nod by the late Princess Diana, Graceland boasts royals and leaders from the former Yugoslavia, Korea, India, China and France. Even a former president, Jimmy Carter, paid his respects at Elvis' grave with former first lady Rosalynn and daughter, Amy, in 1991.

"Elvis and Graceland are very well on the map which is why from all parts of the world, from all backgrounds — even the high and mighty — want to come see Graceland and have the Elvis experience," Morgan said.

The visit won't hurt Bush's voter base of NASCAR fans either, Hoff said.

When Bush and Koizumi enter Graceland's musically noted gates, they will be at the mercy of the King's court. Elvis' ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, and his daughter, Lisa Marie, will give a personal tour of the house, Morgan said.

There's no word yet on whether they'll get to see the very private inner sanctum — the second-floor bedrooms — or if they'll linger at the display case of law-enforcement badges, including the one given to Elvis in 1970 when he met Nixon at the White House.

And Graceland is gearing up for Koizumi's trip as if it were a visit, well, from the King himself.

"We're really looking forward to getting to thank him in person for all the wonderful things he's said about Elvis over the years," Morgan said.