WHITE HOUSE NOTEBOOK: Nailing the funny shirt pic

AP News
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Posted: Nov 15, 2009 5:28 AM

He couldn't bring home the Olympics, but he's nailed the funny shirt photo.

That's one way to view President Barack Obama's announcement that the United States will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hawaii in 2011.

"I look forward to seeing you all decked out in flowered shirts and grass skirts," he told the other leaders Sunday.

Since the 21-nation APEC meetings became summits under President Bill Clinton, they've followed a tradition of letting the host dictate what guests wear for the official picture.

For the first summit, at Blake Island, Wash., in 1993, Clinton passed out bomber jackets. But over the years, things have gotten more interesting _ and lots more colorful. The garb has ranged from Javan batik shirts (Bogor, Indonesia, 1994) to flowing ponchos (Lima, Peru, last year).

The resulting pictures would suggest some leaders enjoy this tradition more than others. Remember President George W. Bush in the poncho?

During this year's meeting in Singapore, the uniform was silk tunic shirts with mandarin collars, in a choice of red or blue-gray. Obama cheerfully opted for the latter. But since he arrived at the summit a day late and just in time for a gala dinner, there was something of a scramble as the leaders pulled together a special photo session to include him.

Steering APEC to Hawaii was likely a consolation for Obama, who failed to land the 2016 Olympics for Chicago despite flying to Copenhagen last month to lead his hometown's closing pitch.

Meantime, after Hawaii and its floral shirts, APEC is almost certain to move in the opposite direction, sartorially speaking. Russia's hosting the summit in 2012 in the eastern city of Vladivostok, where the average November high is just 37 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Also from the picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words department: Obama's class photo with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Mighty efforts were made to ensure the president and the official head of Myanmar's government, Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein, were nowhere near each other. Meaning there was no "Hugo Chavez moment," as when Obama was photographed greeting the anti-American Venezuelan leader at a summit in Trinidad-Tobago.

When Obama met with 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for a group photograph, the U.S. president stayed far away. Similarly, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton didn't speak to officials from Myanmar.

The regime in Myanmar, also known as Burma, has long been shunned by Washington as a brutal dictatorship. Obama's meeting was the first ever by a U.S. president and all 10 ASEAN leaders, and reflected a new carrot-and-stick approach with Myanmar aiming to encourage the release of political prisoners.

It's a strategy, though, that doesn't include grip-and-grin pictures.

There were, however, handshakes _ of a unique ASEAN kind.

Obama was prevailed upon to join the special "ASEAN handshake," which has leaders crossing arms across the chest and grasping the hand of the leaders on either side. This accomplished, Obama flashed a wide smile to photographers _ but never once made eye contact with the Burmese leader while cameras were in the room.

One of Obama's national security aides, Ben Rhodes, told reporters Obama raised Myanmar during the closed-door meeting _ with Thein Sein sitting just seats away _ and again called for freedom of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi, 64, has been detained for 14 of the past 20 years.

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"Privately, he said the exact same thing he said publicly," said Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.

While journalists were around, though, the leaders smiled for the cameras and their aides ushered the interlopers from the room.

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Obama flew into Singapore a day later than first planned, the schedule for his four-country Asian trip shuffled so he could be at Fort Hood, Texas, for Tuesday's memorial service for its shooting victims.

The way things worked out, he got here just in time for the big summit meal _ but too late for the entertainment.

The gala, "Our World, One World", was a lighthearted pastiche reflecting Singapore's polyglot heritage: vaulting Chinese pugilists, swaying Indian dancers and competitive Malay dikir barat singing. There were films reflecting the birth of both APEC and Singapore, a one-time British colony at the tip of the Malay peninsula, and performances by violinist Min Lee and a pair of singers from Singapore's version of American Idol.

"Nothing avant garde or taxing on the brain," its producer, impresario Dick Lee told Singapore's Sunday Times newspaper, "just a joyful celebration of Singapore's culture."

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AP White House Correspondent Jennifer Loven and Associated Press writer Charles Hurtzler contributed to this report.