CAMP DAVID, Maryland (Reuters) - Eight of the world’s most powerful people spent Friday night in the woods.
In a sort of VIP sleepover, G8 leaders bedded down in rustic cabins in rural Maryland, where the U.S. presidential retreat known as Camp David is hosting by far the largest international summit in its 70-year history.
President Barack Obama welcomed his peers from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and Canada to the verdant compound on Friday evening, describing the weather as “perfect” with clear skies visible through tall oak and poplar trees.
The G8 summit was first set to be held in Chicago, where Obama is hosting a Sunday-Monday NATO summit, but he moved them to the retreat 60 miles (96 km) north of Washington to give the talks a more informal flavor.
“The thinking was that people would enjoy being in a more casual backdrop,” Obama told reporters in March after the White House announced the change of venue, widely seen as a way to reduce exposure to potential protests in Chicago.
Camp David, which opened in 1942, has traditionally been a place for U.S. presidents to relax away from the bustle of the White House, and to host foreign dignitaries, typically one at a time.
Its two prior international summits included only a pair of visiting leaders at once: Bill Clinton’s peace talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in 2000, and the 1978 negotiations Jimmy Carter hosted between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat yielding the historic Camp David peace accords.
The White House said each of the G8 leaders would have their own cabin on the Camp David grounds, but admitted they would be of different sizes and possibly of lesser luxury than many prime ministers and presidents are accustomed to.
“The allocation system of course is classified; I really can’t go into that,” Tom Donilon, Obama’s top national security aide, told reporters ahead of the summit.
Donilon twice used the word “adequate” to describe the facilities where German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda were to overnight.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy also stayed at Camp David for the summit that ends Saturday, and each leader could bring in at least one aide.
The G8 meetings are taking place in the dining room of Laurel Lodge, a dark green building surrounded by lush forest where the leaders also ate together on Friday. The large cabin serves as the facility’s business hub, with several conference rooms and a small presidential office.
While Camp David is highly secure with modern communications technology, its decor is somewhat dated. Recent photos released by the White House have featured extensive wood paneling and plaid and vividly patterned upholstered furniture.
Before Friday, Obama had not hosted any foreign leader at Camp David and has spent less time there than his predecessor, George W. Bush, an outdoorsman who often went to the Catoctin Mountain Park getaway for the weekend to mountain bike.
Though Camp David boasts basketball and tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a putting green, sandtraps and tees, Obama has preferred to spend his weekends closer to home, golfing at Andrews Air Force Base and shooting hoops with his daughters Malia and Sasha at a government building near the White House.
Friday marked Obama’s 23rd visit to Camp David, and his first time there since October, according to CBS White House correspondent Mark Knoller who keeps extensive records of presidential travel. At the same point in his presidency, Bush had gone to Camp David 81 times.
Editing by Warren Strobel and Eric Walsh