Spring Break for the Press Corps

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President Bush had jokingly promised a Washington audience that he wouldn’t wear a Speedo bathing suit during his summit in Cancun, but he was spotted in shorts and a T-shirt after a lunchtime workout at his seaside hotel. He gave White House stenographer Ellen Eckert a hearty, sweaty hug. He was clearly enjoying the break between two of his least favorite activities — sightseeing and chaotic international conclaves. Bush, changing the black Cadillac limousine that had picked him up at the Cancun airport for a hearty black Suburban with the Presidential seal on the side, had spent his Thursday morning touring the Chichen-Itza Mayan archeological ruins, a stop that had been added to his itinerary after his failure to drop by the Taj Mahal had stirred so much comment during his recent trip to India. He sportingly wore an untucked, white, tropical-weight shirt and climbed a pyramid at the behest of his host, Mexican President Vicente Fox. They were joined by the third summiteer, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. They all met briefly with cameras, and Harper spoke in French at first. “I can repeat the same thing quickly, if you don’t mind,” he added in English. “Forgive us. That’s how we speak Spanish in the North.”

On the way to the motorcade stretched out in front of his hotel, the LeBlanc Spa Resort, the President had paused on the steps with Harper for what was billed as a greeting, but was designed as a chance for him to comment on the release in Iraq of the hostage Jill Carroll of the Christian Science Monitor. The White House staff had been awakened with the news in early-morning phone calls. Bush's white shirt was sufficiently unflattering that it is unlikely to ever be seen again. “Thank God,” he said. “I’m really grateful she was released and thank those who worked hard for her release, and we’re glad she’s alive.” That was all he said, but that was all that was needed — the video quickly showed up on newscasts around the world. Bush paused long enough for a second question, about whether he was optimistic a long-running dispute with Canada over a protective tariff on softwood lumber would be resolved during the summit, Bush dodged but provided a thought for the day. “I’m always optimistic,” he said slyly.

Every once in a while, Bush lets on that he knows his press corps sometimes has a little more on its mind during overnight trips than work, work, work. This week, many White House reporters have been contemplating the policy implications of “Salt or no salt? Frozen or on the rocks?” The President seemed to sense that and told his pool at the hotel, “It’s good to see you all. And I’d like to make sure you work, more than you play.” It’s a tricky balance, made easier by the fact that the “Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America” meeting had no major announcements or “deliverables,” as diplomats call specific accomplishments at such gatherings. Bush held separate hourlong meetings with Fox and Harper, then met reporters briefly afterward but did not take questions. He was saving those for a joint news conference on Friday, before flying to his Texas ranch for a little summitry with his cows.

After the Canadian meeting, Bush stepped out of the pabulum that is typical during such sessions and threw a bit of an elbow when he said, “The Prime Minister, of course, made an emphatic case for softwood lumber. And I appreciate his steely resolve to get something done. And I assured him that our intention is to negotiate in good faith, in a timely fashion to resolve this issue. And I appreciate you pushing." Following the closed part of the meeting with Fox, Bush crossed his right leg nonchalantly over his left as he waited for a huge crush of reporters and photographers to jostle for places. The Mexicans had admitted close to 80 journalists, more than double the number that is typical in such cases. White House reporters know to silence their cellphones, but the White House always reminds foreigners, since a “cell-phone violation” is a big bugaboo with Bush. As the press pack waited in the hotel’s service corridor, a young White House official had held up a phone, made a slashing sign across his throat, and said pleasantly, “Silencio.” Nevertheless, there were two cell-phone violations during the 15-minute photo opportunity, both of them annoying melodic rings.

This spring-break mecca is still pocked by the effects of Hurricane Wilma, the Category 4 that hit last October. Hotel towers stand dark, their windows blown out. The President, his senior staff and the rotating pool of reporters that stays close to him bunked at the Le Blanc, but the majority of the press was 20 miles away at the Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort, where reporters paid $360 a night for rooms that included a whirlpool with a family-size bottle of bubble bath. The property is so massive that I was in “Edifico 23,” part of the “Mango” complex. The Moon is an “all-inclusive” resort, meaning that guest receive a wristband giving them unlimited access to all the bars and restaurants on the property. “A cruise ship on land,” is how one journalist put it. There’s an extra charge for the temporary tattoos and full-body massages available poolside. “Golfito,” or mini-golf and “no gravity sensation scuba” are also offered, perfect relief from tequila volleyball. Some of the heartier correspondents journeyed outside the complex to places like Senor Frog, where they got additional wristbands emblazoned with tasteful designations such as “Open Bar.” A great way to get your mind off softwood lumber.