WASHINGTON (AP) — Isolated and heavily guarded, the mountaintop retreat is known simply as Camp David, but its wooded grounds have been a place of triumph and failure, refuge and relief.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill huddled there with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1943 to pore over plans for the invasion of Normandy.
The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was forged at Camp David under the guidance of President Jimmy Carter. And it was there, too, that President Bill Clinton unsuccessfully tried to broker a deal between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.
President Barack Obama, an infrequent visitor, is putting the presidential hideaway on full display for this weekend’s summit of the Group of Eight industrial nations, the largest gathering of foreign leaders ever to assemble there. Arriving Friday, the leaders will stroll the camp’s leafy paths and bed down in the 11 residential cabins. Four African leaders will join them for lunch Saturday.
More than 50 heads of state have visited Camp David over the past seven decades. But this weekend’s G-8 meeting represents the first time more than two foreign leaders have gathered there.
About 1,800 feet above sea level, the camp occupies at least 125 acres, is protected by Marines and though nestled in the Catoctin Mountains, it is incongruously part of the Navy’s budget. A short drive from the town of Thurmont in northern Maryland, the compound is not marked by road signs and is ringed by imposing security fences. Within its confines, presidents and their guests can enjoy an abbreviated game of golf, play tennis, bowl, swim in the heated pool, even shoot skeet.
In choosing Camp David for the G-8 talks, Obama made an explicit decision to separate those economic discussions from the NATO summit that will immediately follow in Chicago, offering two distinct venues for each gathering — one tranquil and remote and the other boisterous and highly public.
“Chicago … is already going crazy,” said Matthew Goodman, a former Obama White House national security council aide responsible for international economic summits. “He could see that it wasn’t going to be a place to facilitate a really quiet, sort of intimate conversation.”
Each of the leaders will have his or her own cabin, though the allocation is classified. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said the rustic environment will make it easier for leaders to huddle with each other privately on the sidelines. The leader meetings will take place in the dining room of the main cabin, Laurel Lodge.
Camp David offers other benefits as well. Participants there won’t be exposed to demonstrations from the Occupy Wall Street movement or from anti-globalization activists. Moreover, had both summits been held in Chicago as originally planned, Russian President Vladimir Putin would have had to have made an awkward exit after the G-8 while other leaders turned to NATO. In the end, Putin chose not to come, a move widely seen as a snub of Obama. Putin sent Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev instead.
About 70 miles from the White House, Camp David has been a weekend refuge for presidents since 1942, when FDR decided he needed to stay close to the capital during wartime while still escaping Washington’s oppressive summer heat. Roosevelt named it “Shangri-la,” the fictional valley in James Hilton’s 1933 novel “Lost Horizon.”
President Dwight Eisenhower renamed the retreat after his grandson David, though it retains its official prosaic name: Naval Support Facility Thurmont.
Over the years, presidents have had different attachments to the camp.
President Harry Truman seldom went there. But Eisenhower was a frequent visitor. An avid golfer, he had a putting green installed with tees at four distances and locations, thus essentially creating a compact four-hole golf course. Eisenhower hosted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1959.
Though presidents Kennedy and Johnson didn’t use Camp David much, Kennedy found it a useful place to consult with Eisenhower in the aftermath of the aborted Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and Johnson found it a useful place to meet with advisers over the direction of the Vietnam War.
It was President Richard Nixon’s favorite sanctuary when he was in Washington, retreating there to meet with foreign leaders or escape the pressures of Watergate. President Ronald Reagan was a frequent visitor. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush’s daughter, Dorothy “Doro,” got married at Camp David, the first wedding performed there. His son, President George W. Bush, was a camp regular, logging hundreds of days there during his two terms.
Not all have found the retreat to their liking. Margaret Truman found the place claustrophobic and gloomy, according to Dale Nelson’s book “The President Is at Camp David.” During the Israel-Egypt talks that Carter led, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin reflected on the tight security and likened the camp to a “concentration camp deluxe,” and Nelson writes that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat would later confess to feeling like he was “under house detention.”
Obama visited Camp David 11 times in 2009 but has cut back his trips since. Friday’s visit will mark his 23rd visit to the camp and his first as host to foreign leaders. By this time in his presidency, George W. Bush had made 81 visits to Camp David for all or part of 256 days and had entertained 10 leaders there, according to records kept by CBS News’ Mark Knoller, who tracks presidential travel.
The weekend meeting will mark Obama’s first stay at the camp this year.
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)