KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine -- President Bush, who prides himself on building personal ties to foreign leaders, launched a bit of hamburger diplomacy yesterday as he welcomed the newly elected president of France to an informal lunch and private chat at the Bush family compound here.
The vacationing French leader, Nicolas Sarkozy, offered a gracious medley of continental etiquette when he arrived: he shook Bush's hand, bussed Laura Bush on both cheeks, bowed to smooch the hand of the president's mother, Barbara Bush, and happily hugged Bush's daughters, Jenna and Barbara.
The White House described the seaside session as a "casual family lunch," and not a formal summit with one of America's oldest allies. But the signs of change seemed as clear.
In a rare departure, the White House disclosed later that former President George H.W. Bush joined his son for a 50-minute, closed-door discussion with Sarkozy, as well as on a wave-smashing speedboat ride along the rocky coast.
White House aides have taken pains in the past to deflect suggestions that the elder Bush acts as a closet adviser to his son. But the three-way,"tete-a-tete-a-tete" yesterday confirms that the former president plays a direct role at times, at least as a sounding board and boat skipper.
The topics included Iran, where Bush is seeking Sarkozy's aid in thwarting Iran's suspected pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Other world hot spots - Darfur and Lebanon among them - were likely discussed, but the White House declined to divulge details.
Washington's relations with France had plummeted under Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, especially over the French refusal to back the war in Iraq. Disagreements over trade and climate change exacerbated the rift, although the two governments cooperated closely on problems in Iran, Sudan and Lebanon.
Sarkozy, in contrast, is unabashedly pro-American, a man with a passion for Ernest Hemingway, Steve McQueen and Sylvester Stallone. During his campaign, he claimed he was proud to be called "Sarkozy the American." Like Bush, he shuns alcohol and is an avid bicycle rider.
Dressed in blue jeans and a blazer, Sarkozy called America a "close friend" with 250 years of shared history and sacrifice. "Do we agree on everything? No, because maybe even within a family there are disagreements, but we are still a family."
When Bush and Sarkozy met, the body language of their back-slapping camaraderie was a far cry from Bush's meeting last month with Gordon Brown, the new British prime minister. Formal and businesslike in a suit, Brown seemed determined to delineate differences between himself and the Bush administration.
Bush flies back to Washington today and then heads down to his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Bob Drogin writes for the Los Angeles Times.