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Last Updated: Friday, 29 June 2007, 13:33 GMT 14:33 UK
Any Kennebunkport in a storm

By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News

The menu has been decided, security and secret service agents are in town and small Russian flags are already on sale. Vladimir Putin is about to get what has become known as the Kennebunkport treatment.

Residents of the tiny dot on the map of Maine, on the US east coast, have long been used to world leaders riding into the seaside tourist town, but this weekend's visit by the Russian president is being viewed as one of the most important for many years.

Walker's Point
Kennebunkport's name was adopted from a Native American word meaning "long cut bank," believed to have referred to the mouth of the Mousam River
It is regarded as one of the most expensive holiday areas in the North-east
Bush senior met Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 for a day of tennis and negotiations
John Major was treated to a clambake during Soviet talks in 1991

The Bush family has a long history with the area. Their summer retreat at Walker's Point - a century-old complex of stone cottages - was built by President George W Bush's great-grandfather.

The first President Bush, HW, has returned each summer - except two - to the oceanfront property that sits on a craggy promontory jutting out into the Gulf of Maine. This is where he forgot the troubles of the world, fished and played golf with Bush junior.

Kennebunkport was where Bush HW managed the early days of the first Gulf War, and held informal, getting-to-know-you sessions with heads of state.

And it was while holidaying at Walker's Point that George W reportedly "found God", after evangelist Billy Graham spent a summer weekend there in 1985.


During his own presidency, though, George W turned his back on the New England home in favour of his cherished ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Despite this, Kennebunkport still has a political part to play.

"This really can be considered to be the Bush family's inner sanctum," one former senior official told the BBC News website.

Putin is the first world leader to be invited by George W to the family home during his presidency, he says, and this in itself can be seen as a "symbolic gesture."

"Location is important in diplomacy. This is a way of projecting openness," he says. "It's a gesture by Bush - he's saying that he wants to take the time to put his feet up with Putin."

Relations between the US and Russia are currently at their lowest point since the Soviet era, particularly because of a dispute over US plans to build missile defence shield radar station in eastern Europe.

Nice guys

Like his father, President Bush favours the personal touch and has invited many heads of state to the "Western White House" in Crawford. After a visit by Putin in 2001, Mr Bush famously said he had been given a chance to "see his heart and soul".

Putin in Crawford

This time round, however, Texas is sweltering under the July sun. So why not Camp David, which has been much used by former presidents?

"Symbolically, it's more associated with the context of peace negotiations," says the former official.

American presidential expert Stephen Wayne from Georgetown University in Washington says this weekend's summit is "consistent with the approach of George W Bush to say: 'I'm a nice guy, you're a nice guy, we can talk'."

"He's obviously not bringing Putin to Kennebunkport to scold him. I think Bush is signalling that we can be two human beings and work towards our best interests together."

Bush senior, who will be at Walker's Point as usual for the 4 July holiday weekend, has said he will not join the discussions between the leaders, but will be on hand to show what family life is like there.

"Fishing is good for the soul. Fishing is good for one person to get to know another," he told local TV station WGME. Such trips are generally enjoyed aboard Bush senior's much-loved speedboat Fidelity.

George Bush senior's cigarette boat
Bush senior has entertained leaders with a trip on his speedboat
Some commentators believe Bush senior's presence will send a subtle message.

"George H W Bush was a consummate diplomat and the younger Bush has been distinctly unilateral for much of his presidency. Using the family estate associated with the senior Bush in the equation is a good way to signal pragmatic flexibility," says Fred I Greenstein Professor of Politics at Princeton University.

Local interest

As with most visitors to the area, Mr Putin is almost certain to get his share of the local fare: seafood.

Steve Kingston, owner of The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport has been working with the Bush family's private chef Ariel De Guzman preparing the menu for the summit.

"If it's lunch it's going to be boiled lobster and if it's dinner, we're going to do a lobster appetiser followed by swordfish," he told the BBC News website.

The Bush family in 1999
The family relaxes at Kennebunkport in the late 1990s
Tourists have already started flocking to the town to catch a glimpse of the Bushes and Mr Putin.

"There are many people coming to town who might not otherwise have come," Dick Leeman, president of the Kennebunk and Kennebunkport Chamber of Commerce told the BBC News website.

"This is probably one of the most important visits to our town in terms of our own history and that of US foreign policy."

While such high-profile visits are rare these days, locals have learned to adjust to the attention.

"The folks that are here have accepted that there will be some minor changes to our lives - security teams have already come in, roads will be blocked and there will be helicopters overhead and boats in the harbour," he said.

"We in Maine and Kennebunkport are fiercely independent, but we are accepting and we also treasure the fact that the Bushes are here, and we do what we can to protect their privacy."

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