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Japan’s Koizumi Shakes Up Graceland

Times Staff Writer

President Bush doesn’t get a lot of tender love these days on the world stage. But Friday, taking his Japanese counterpart on a private tour of Graceland, Bush received a hunk of burning love.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi -- calling it a “dream” to see the home of his longtime idol, Elvis Presley -- was reduced to almost uncontrollably giddy giggling as he broke into a serenade for Bush and First Lady Laura Bush and for Presley’s ex-wife, Priscilla, and their daughter, Lisa Marie.

“Love me tender ... " Koizumi crooned through a thick accent as he stood with the others in Graceland’s famously tacky Jungle Room -- replete with fake-fur-covered furniture, an indoor waterfall and avocado colored shag carpet covering floor and ceiling.

The Bushes, clearly unaccustomed to such a display (or perhaps still disoriented from the mirrored ceilings in the downstairs television room) looked on with strained smiles. Koizumi persisted, belting out another one of his favorite Elvis hits.

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“Wise men say,” he sang, “only fools rush in.”

Lisa Marie Presley spoke up, wondering where the group could find a karaoke machine. But President Bush had heard enough. He tapped his friend on the shoulder and shook his hand, effectively cutting off the performance.

“I thought you were going to do ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ ” Bush cracked.

The exchange marked one of several offbeat but affectionate scenes during Koizumi’s “sayonara summit” this week in the United States.

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The prime minister is soon leaving office, and ever since he first met Bush exactly five years ago -- and played a game of catch at Camp David -- the two leaders have maintained a close friendship.

Like Bush, Koizumi is a baseball fan and a lover of country music. In perhaps the key element to his rapport with Bush, he also has been a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq.

Friday’s tour was a bit of a reward for that rare loyalty. Koizumi, who shares Elvis’ Jan. 8 birthday, is obsessed with Presley’s music and has even produced a CD in Japan of his 25 favorite songs by “the King.”

The trip followed a gala White House dinner Thursday night at which the two leaders exchanged compliments.

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Bush drew parallels between Koizumi and Presley, noting their widely known shared taste in hairstyles. “Like you, he had great hair,” the president said during his dinner toast. “Like you, he was known to sing in public.”

Koizumi said that, as a child, his “exposure to America was Presley,” which he said was “a vivid memory” of his youth.

“The first English song I ever learned by heart was Presley’s ‘I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,’ ” he said.

That had been the first song Koizumi selected earlier Thursday on a half-century-old jukebox that the Bushes gave him as a present. And, even during a joint news conference at the White House that focused on such serious matters as North Korean missiles and military tribunals for alleged terrorists, Koizumi was inspired to make a Presley reference.

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“Thank you, very much, American people, for ‘Love Me Tender,’ ” he said, drawing laughter as Bush all but dragged him from the East Room podium.

On Friday’s pilgrimage to Graceland, the delegation strolled through each room of the 1920s-era mansion. They saw display cases containing some of Presley’s sequin-encrusted outfits. His signature pink Cadillac was removed from the antique car museum and placed near the home’s front entrance to make room for the media to work.

Bush and Koizumi enjoyed a bit of private time in the meditation garden where Elvis and his parents are buried. The leaders did not go upstairs, the site of Presley’s death at age 42 in 1977.

Back in the Jungle Room, Koizumi threw his left arm around Lisa Marie’s shoulders and sang again.

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“Hold me close, hold me tight.”

Awkward laughter filled the room.

Moments later, Koizumi poked through Elvis’ wallet, which contained original cards and IDs, and, surprising museum curators, he picked up and donned a pair of the King’s sunglasses. As others watched with puzzled looks, the prime minister appeared to play an air guitar, then swivel his arms as if to mimic a famous Elvis maneuver.

When Bush called him a “pretty good Elvis singer,” Koizumi replied: “I’m not impersonator.”

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There were, however, some impersonators attracted to the circus: four anti-whaling protesters dressed up as Elvis stood outside Graceland holding signs telling Koizumi, “Don’t be cruel.”

The half-day stop at Graceland was something of a departure for Bush, who has not been known to spend much time at cultural attractions. He zipped through the vaunted Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia; rushed past the ancient Great Wall in China; and skipped the Taj Mahal in India -- raising eyebrows among many of that country’s citizens.

With Koizumi in tow, Bush also visited a more somber historical site in Memphis: the motel where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

The group stopped briefly at a museum on the property and, guided by longtime civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks, went to the spot on the motel’s balcony where King was shot.

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The Bushes and Koizumi lunched at one of the city’s barbecue restaurants and then parted company, with the president heading to Ohio for a Republican fundraiser.


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