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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Fallen from Graceland

New York Times
July 1, 2006

In Memphis, Two Heads of Government Visit the Home of Rock 'n' Roll Royalty

Matthew Cavanaugh/European Pressphoto Agency

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi did an Elvis Presley impression during a tour of Graceland today.

MEMPHIS, June 30 — Plenty of awestruck Elvis impersonators have passed through the wrought-iron gates of Graceland. Until Friday, none had the president of the United States in tow.

"It's like a dream," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan said to President Bush in the Jungle Room of the Presley home here. Amid the faux leopard print chairs and green shag carpet covering both floor and ceiling, the prime minister then serenaded the president.

"Loooovve mee tenderrrrr," Mr. Koizumi crooned, as Priscilla Presley, Elvis's former wife, and Lisa Marie, his daughter, looked on.

When Priscilla Presley pointed out the oversize gold-rimmed sunglasses once worn by the King of Rock 'n' Roll, the prime minister eagerly donned them, thrusting his hips and arms forward in imitation of a classic Elvis move.

"I knew he loved Elvis," Mr. Bush said afterward. "I didn't realize how much he loved Elvis."

If the visit, the first time a sitting president has toured Graceland, resembled an Elvis lovefest, it was a Bush-Koizumi lovefest as well, orchestrated by the White House to spotlight the close relationship between Japan and the United States. Mr. Koizumi, who will step down in September, is among Mr. Bush's closest friends on the world stage; the trip was both a farewell gift and a thank you for Japan's support on the war on terror.

In the annals of international diplomacy, it was not exactly Yalta. But it did bring a little bit of shake, rattle and roll to American foreign relations — perhaps too much for Mr. Bush, who resisted being caught in any poses even remotely Elvislike.

Not so Mr. Koizumi.

The prime minister's obsession with Elvis is well known; he shares a birthday, Jan. 8, and a hairstyle with Elvis, and worked in the 1980's to erect a bronze statue of the singer in Tokyo. At one point Friday, Mr. Koizumi happily remarked to Lisa Marie Presley that she looked like her father. He later threw his arm around her, belting out some Elvis lyrics, "Hold me close, hold me tight."

Mr. Bush, though, eventually cut off the performance, clapping the prime minister on the shoulder and firmly shaking his hand in a none-too-subtle message that the curtain was about to fall.

The sight of the ordinarily strait-laced Mr. Bush, with his vigorous exercise regimen and disdain for alcohol, wandering about the home where a bloated, drug-abusing Elvis died in the bathroom might have seemed incongruous to some. Indeed, the White House press secretary, Tony Snow, on Thursday refused to answer a delicate question: Did Mr. Bush prefer a fat Elvis or a skinny Elvis?

"Uuuuhh, yes," Mr. Snow replied diplomatically.

The prime minister was later treated to lunch at the Rendezvous, the downtown barbecue restaurant, which changed the labels on its spicy barbecue sauce to read, "One President, One Prime Minister, One King." The drummer for the Dempseys, a rockabilly band invited to perform over lunch, rescheduled the birth of his first child (the labor was induced).

With Memphis reeling from a recent spate of drive-by shootings that have killed several teenagers, the White House took pains to make sure Mr. Bush's trip was not all frivolity. The president made an unannounced stop at the National Civil Rights Museum, next door to the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.

There, the civil rights leader Benjamin L. Hooks showed the prime minister, Mr. Bush and Laura Bush to Room 306, where Dr. King died. The visit was so last-minute that Mr. Hooks was at a dental appointment Friday morning when he received a phone call from the White House, asking him to serve as guide.

The trip attracted onlookers far more diverse than the already polyglot hordes that normally come to Elvis Presley Boulevard. The street was lined with people, as were barricades set up at the visitor center, across the street from Graceland. They included the curious and those just waiting for their turn to take the tour; protesters of the Iraq war and supporters of the troops; a woman dressed as Lady Liberty; and a man who said he had a letter stating that if the Boston Red Sox went to the World Series again he would throw out the first pitch, and that he would be going by Graceland later to see his old friend Lisa Marie.

But there were also those who used the surroundings for inspiration, at risk of copyright infringement and personal dignity. And not all their messages were for Mr. Bush.

Along the barricades, two Japanese doctors from the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis stood behind a large sign. "I want you, I need you, I love you," it read. "Darling, I wish to build a children's cancer hospital in Japan together."

Gregory Wetstone, the tweed-suited director of United States operations for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, was accompanied by four Elvis impersonators in white jumpsuits. "We're delivering a message," Mr. Wetstone said. "Which is, don't be cruel — to whales."

At one end of the famous Graceland wall, inscribed by decades of tourists, stood a cluster of onlookers from the nearby predominantly black neighborhood, Whitehaven, that surrounds Graceland. One, a former state representative named Bret Thompson, said he had come because of a recent crime wave in Memphis that has caused consternation among the city's leaders.

"We had, I guess, the most violent week in Memphis history," Mr. Thompson said. "We had a killing every day." He gestured at the flashing lights and barricades closing off the street to protect the president. "This is the safest place in the world right now, isn't it?"

But mostly, Friday was a day to celebrate a peculiar slice of Americana, gold lamé suits and all.

The White House left no detail unattended for what Mr. Bush described as "this most unusual experience." The breakfast fare on Air Force One was peanut butter and banana sandwiches, a recipe straight from Elvis's kitchen. Elvis movies — "Love Me Tender" and "Viva Las Vegas"— were available for viewing.

And Elvis music played loudly over the speakers, until Mr. Bush asked that it be turned down.

The Graceland tour capped a two-day visit by Mr. Koizumi to the United States; on Thursday, the two leaders met at the White House, where the threat of a long-range-missile launching by North Korea was high on the agenda. The visit here was Mr. Bush's idea, said Michael Green, a former White House foreign policy aide.

"Frankly," Mr. Green said, "I think the bureaucrats on both sides were a little bit perplexed, if not aghast."

The house is virtually as Elvis left it, a homage to 1970's hotel décor. The white couch in the living room is 15 feet long. The kitchen is paneled in wood. The TV room has three television sets, a mirrored ceiling and a bar upholstered in yellow Naugahyde. Elvis's famed pink Cadillac was parked outside; it ordinarily sits in a car museum across the street but was moved to make way for the traveling press.

The tour was the same as ordinary tourists receive, with one big exception: there were no ropes to prevent the two leaders from sitting where Elvis sat, walking where Elvis walked or touching what Elvis touched. When Mr. Koizumi picked up the gold sunglasses, Graceland's curator, who had carefully carried the glasses into the room with gloved hands, looked as if she were about to faint.

One part of the house the Bushes and Mr. Koizumi missed was the upstairs, Elvis's living quarters. Elvis insisted they be kept private, said David Beckwith, a spokesman for Graceland.

"Nobody goes upstairs," Mr. Beckwith said.

Not even Japan's best-known Elvis impersonator and the president of the United States.

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