Summit packs punch


Not since the 1700s when George Washington hosted the Marquis de Lafayette had Mount Vernon been the setting for such a powerful summit between two old allies.

Back then, the French hero of the Revolutionary War probably arrived by horseback, with a few commanders in tow. Last week, President George W. Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy sped through Old Town in bulletproof limousines and war wagons, with the Alexandria Police stopping traffic at every intersection. Three hours later, after a hearty lunch and an even meatier agenda, the two world leaders left Mount Vernon via helicopter, so as not to disrupt Alexandrias notoriously snarled rush-hour.

A White House official said it was the first time in six years that a French president has made an official visit to the United States, and the stage for the meeting was symbolic because it was at Mount Vernon that Lafayette established a strong and lasting relationship with Americas first president.

Lafayette visited Mount Vernon several times between 1784 and 1825, but the French connection to the fledgling new republic had been strong since the young aristocrat joined General Washingtons army to help conquer the British. The marquis even named his son George Washington Lafayette.

Bush personally chose Mount Vernon as the site of the Nov. 7 summit with Sarkozy to reaffirm the deep historical bonds shared by the two countries, the White House official said. The night before, a regal State Dinner was held at The White House, and Bush saw to it that Jim Rees, Mount Vernons executive director, and Alexandrias Sen. John W. Warner (R-VA) were on the list. Warner was not able to attend, but his wife Jeanne Vander Myde Warner, an Old Town Realtor, did. 

In time for the historic meeting with Sarkozy, a Michigan furniture company crafted and delivered a custom-designed mahogany conference table to Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon asked for our assistance in creating a meeting table for visiting dignitaries that was a worthy complement to the estates other furniture, said Jonathan Smith, president of Kindel Furniture Company, which is licensed to produce furniture with Mount Vernon. The project took on even more significance when we were told by Mount Vernon that it is scheduled to be used as the meeting table for President Bush and French President Sarkozy.

About 100 craftspeople built the massive Duncan Phyfe mahogany table, which measures 21 feet. Duncan Phyfe was a Scottish-born American furniture maker in the 19th century, and was part of a long tradition of woodworking in the United States, Smith said. Phyfe also introduced the French Empire style to American furniture makers. The Mount Vernon Mansion and The White House contain several pieces of Duncan Phyfe furniture.

Kindel Furniture donated the $30,000 table to Mount Vernon. The companys craftspeople spent three months designing and building the table, using a 24-step hand-rubbed finishing process. Because our furniture is so labor intensive, literally 100 of our employees can say they worked on a table that was fit for our president, Smith said.

Although Sarkozy visited the president at the Bush family home in Maine last summer, this was his first visit to Washington since taking office in May. At Mount Vernon, they discussed working together to strengthen security and democracy in Afghanistan and to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Talks also included Middle East peace efforts, ending the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan and fostering democratic change in Burma.

We are most definitely entering a dynamic new era in U.S.-France relations, one that is full of potential and positive energy, said R. Nicholas Burns, the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. From a global perspective, we have no more vital ally on the great issues of our time climate change, Darfur, Burma, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq than France.

The last head of state to join an American president for a meeting at Mount Vernon was the late King Hussein of Jordan, who met with President George H. W. Bush in 1989. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy hosted a state dinner in honor of President Ayub Khan of Pakistan at Mount Vernon. We feel a special satisfaction because you are our guest and because we feel that what Mount Vernon stands for is understood by you, Kennedy said at the time. Mount Vernon means to us not merely a beautiful home, but it also is, we hope, the symbol of the United States.

Queen Elizabeth made a ceremonial visit to Mount Vernon in 1991, and Akie Abe, wife of Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe, visited there in April as the guest of Laura Bush, who told the Japanese first lady that Mount Vernon is her favorite place.