David Usborne: Leaders follow in the footsteps of FDR and Winston Churchill

Camp David is the presidential retreat where history is made

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For the leaders of the world powers, the summits dotted through their annual diaries usually mean trips to whatever metropolis the host country is eager to show off. Recently, Pittsburgh, Strasbourg, Seoul, and London have all welcomed the circuses that spring up to accommodate the visiting HoGs and HoSs (Heads of Government and State).

But it won't be sirens or the horns of angry protesters that the participants in this weekend's G8 summit will be waking to this morning. It will be birdsong and the buzz of bees. This is Camp David in the mountains of northern Maryland, the retreat of US presidents since 1942 when Franklin D Roosevelt decided he needed a refuge and a place to meet foreign leaders, including Winston Churchill.

After a welcome dinner last night to discuss the most pressing foreign policy issues of the day – Iran, North Korea and Syria – the guests of President Barack Obama were shown not to hotel suites, but to the rustic sleeping cabins that stand apart from the main structure, Laurel Lodge. There are 11 of them at Camp David, enough for one each with three to spare.

It is the solitude, of course, that gives Camp David its appeal – even if some US presidents have warmed to it more than others. George W Bush was so enamoured by it that he visited 81 times during his two terms in the White House, clocking up 256 days enjoying its facilities – the heated pool, the mini-golf course, tennis court and the 125 acres of woodland. By contrast, this is President Obama's 23rd visit. History records those private meetings between the US President and foreign leaders when the stakes were highest. For FDR and Churchill, the topic was war. Jimmy Carter brokered the peace deal between Menachem Begin of Israel and Egypt's President Anwar Sadat. Bill Clinton tried but just failed to secure a Middle East settlement between Palestine's Yasser Arafat and then Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak.

It is the intimacy that persuaded Barack Obama to shift the venue of the G8 from Chicago, where a Nato summit begins tomorrow, to here. If he has neglected Camp David to an extent, this weekend will make up for it.

Dinner last night was set for the dining room in the main lodge, which this morning will be transformed into a conference room for their main meetings, where, of course, Greece's political turmoil and the threat to the euro will be the top topic of conversation.

Tranquillity, however, is not what the locals in Thurmont, population 6,000, are feeling this weekend. Chinook helicopters fly overhead, its schools were closed yesterday and its limited supply of rooms filled with Secret Service and other summit personnel unable to find a bed on the Camp David campus.

Some protesters are also in town, but they know their chanted messages will be lost in the glades.

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