Mmmm! Tasty Tidbits From the Air Force One Galley

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Call it the summit shuttle: President Clinton, who arrived a day late to the G-8 summit in Okinawa, Japan, left a few hours early to make it back to the Israeli-Palestinian summit in time for dinner. Disease, hunger and education in the Third World were formally on the agenda in Japan, but Clinton and other officials were peppered with questions about Camp David. The President generally kept mum, although he did reveal that Barak and Arafat "have not wasted the time" that he was gone. Other administration officials were introduced at press briefings as being "ready to answer all your questions — except about Camp David." Credit the White House with the first traveling, worldwide news blackout.

And miles to go: After days of intense round-the-clock talks at Camp David and a 15-hour flight to Japan (with a 13-hour time change) Clinton and his aides were bushed. Yet while the President often looked puffy-eyed, he never nodded off in public. But veteran Clinton-watchers noted that when the President, a compulsive ad-libber, gave his major speech at Okinawa's Peace Park, he stuck strictly to his prepared text, a sure sign of exhaustion.

Acronym alert: The Japanese hosts wanted to make this an Internet summit (even though Prime Minister Mori only learned to use a mouse a few months ago), so the summiteers issued an Okinawa Charter on Global Information Society and promised to do more to wire the developing world. Beforehand, U.S. officials stopped talking about bridging the "digital divide" that threatens to separate rich countries from poor, but instead started pushing the idea of creating more "digital opportunity" for developing countries. Reason: At Okinawa, they announced they were forming a new Digital Opportunity Task Force, or DOT Force (get it?) to coordinate government and private sector efforts. (Guess a Digital Divide Task Force, or DDT Force, sounds like an insecticide.)

Vlad, you've got mail: In the Net spirit, Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin suggested the Big 8 keep in touch via e-mail. Experts worried about security and snoopy hackers. We wondered about screen names on the Buddy List: "madvlad", "dcbubba," and "3rdwaytony"?

But does he like jazz? Western leaders still trying to get a read on Putin were encouraged that the new Russian leader seems to be pragmatic and realistic. While the mercurial Boris Yeltsin "was a great story, he was not a great interlocutor," said one U.S. official. "The other leaders were happy to have a Russian leader they can deal with on a non-emotional basis." Putin also displayed a certain wry sense of irony. He had just come from North Korea, where he was greeted by an outpouring of 1 million citizens — not all there voluntarily, he allowed to Clinton. Putin told the President he was taken aback by the whole strangeness of the isolated dictatorship, which Putin said reminded him of Stalinist Russia in the 1950s. (When it was pointed out to a Clinton aide that Putin once worked for the KGB, which admired Stalinist Russia, the aide said with a laugh, "People can change.")

Now one grows in Okinawa, too: Amid the meetings, formal banquets and cultural shows (in this case, a demonstration of karate, which originated on Okinawa), every major summit has some moments of inexplicable silliness. This summit's contribution to the genre: the leaders "planting a tree" by each throwing a shovel of dirt on a pine tree that was already planted, and dutifully examining with feigned interest a new high-tech voting machine that Japan's Prime Minister Mori was quite proud of.

Adieu, old chap: Despite his exhaustion, Clinton was in a good mood at this, his last G-8, and often could be seen joking and laughing with his colleagues, with some of whom, like Britain's Tony Blair, France's Jacques Chirac and Germany's Gerhard Schroeder, he's developed close relations over the years. During the traditional "family portrait" of the group, Clinton joked, "This is my last photo, so be serious, do this right." Blair said all the leaders would "miss him greatly," and in an apparent allusion to the President's scandal and impeachment woes, spoke of "our real admiration for his strength and his leadership over these past few years."

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...: White House aides fear that Clinton's long stay up at Camp David and his trip here have allowed the Republicans in Congress to gain important political ground with their proposals to cut the estate tax and the marriage penalty. Although administration officials and Democratic leaders have been condemning the tax cuts as too deep, "what's been missing is the President's voice," said one aide here. Solution: last Saturday's radio address, which dealt exclusively with domestic tax issues, attacking the Republicans for "treating the surplus like they'd won it in the lottery." There was no mention of the G-8 in the address, which could have just as well been delivered from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as from Japan.

That's what cell phones are for: Much of the hallway chatter in Okinawa was about the strange near-death and rebirth of the Camp David talks just hours before Clinton departed last Wednesday. Officials insist it was not a ploy. In fact, National Security Council spokesman P. J. Crowley left Thurmont after announcing the talks were done and started driving back to the White House in preparation for leaving for Japan. As he drove, knowing that Clinton would have to motorcade back because bad weather grounded the chopper, he kept looking in his rear-view mirror for the speeding entourage. After a while, he thought, "They must have taken a different route." It was only when he got to the White House that he learned they hadn't left. Presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart, equally sure the summit was scuppered, told his wife and daughter to meet him at his White House office Wednesday evening. After waiting there in vain for four hours, the pair gave up and went back home.