Bush thinks out of the box

As President George W. Bush and his entourage continue their grand tour of Europe, White House staff are scrambling to fill the vacant job of US trade representative, one of the last but most important vacant jobs in the new administration.

Observer hears that Bush has ordered some "out-of-the-box" thinking regarding names to succeed the Robert Zoellick, who is moving to be Condoleezza Rice's deputy secretary of state.

The presidential decree appears to diminish the prospects for Josette Shiner, Zoellick's deputy, as well as Gary Edson and Grant Aldonas, two conventional candidates who have served Bush in senior trade and economic posts.

Aldonas, currently in the Commerce department, is now set to leave the government at the end of March, while Edson, a senior White House economic policy adviser, is recovering from surgery.

Meanwhile, earlier rumours that Robert Kimmitt, a former top aide to James Baker when he was secretary of state, was interested in the job are said be wide of the mark.

The idea of going for a high-profile name such as a top businessman for the USTR job has nevertheless caused mild consternation in some circles of the administration.

The post of trade representative is a mind-numbingly technical job that requires the massaging of inflated egos on Capitol Hill and the diplomatic skill to forge coalitions among countries in the Doha world trade talks.

Perhaps there is a brilliant businessman out there who can walk, chew gum and talk trade at the same time. But he/she should remember that the last "out of the box" Bush nominee for a top job was Bernard Kerik, former New York City police commissioner. His bid to head the Department of Homeland Security lasted barely a week.

Italian job

Meanwhile, despite Bush's visit, those inside the Brussels bubble seemed more intent on celebrating International Mother Language Day than motherhood and apple pie.

Debate at the daily press briefing was monopolised by one subject: the number of languages used at press briefings.

It was not just the usual suspects - Basques and Catalans from Spain - complaining. Italian pride has also been hurt after the language of love was unceremoniously dumped by the new Commission from press conferences held by commissioners, except on Wednesdays, when interpretation is available in all 20 official languages.

This comes on top of another blow: there are no Italian spokesmen. The previous Commission of Romano Prodi, ex-Italian prime minister, had two. Italian radio and TV journalists have not only lost a sotto voce for the audience back home: they have also lost an ear on the inside.

"It is not for want of trying," says Françoise Le Bail, José Manuel Barroso's French head spokeswoman, who said an Italian had turned down the chance to be her deputy. As for the lack of Italian translation, there are simply not enough interpreters in a 25-member Union.

The Italian embassy has written three letters of complaint, the first on November 18. "We think member states and journalists should have been consulted on the change," said an Italian government spokesman, sniffily noting that it was a big state.

The letters have yet to be answered. Perhaps Mr Barroso, the Portuguese president, is still waiting for them to be translated.

W for welcome

Bush revealed yesterday how he prepared for his tour of Europe by reading an account of a similar visit by Benjamin Franklin more than two centuries ago.

He told a VIP audience in Brussels how an observer at the time reported that Franklin's reputation in Europe was "more universal than Leibnitz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire", adding that "there was scarcely a peasant or citizen who did not consider him as a friend to humankind".

"I have been hoping for a similar reception," Bush joked.

Bush will probably have no idea what the Belgian peasantry think of him, since he has been shielded from them by a tight security cordon, but no doubt comparisons with Voltaire, that champion of free speech, are being made behind the barricades.

Blair's blushes

What of Bush's best buddy in Europe, Tony Blair? The British prime minister had to make do with a breakfast meeting today rather than a visit to London on Bush's tour.

Blair's aides were yesterday keen to stress there was no wider significance to this, adding that the prime minister and president communicated often, via their own videolink.

In truth, the president is probably aiding his ally more by staying away. With an election looming, the governing Labour party wants to banish the damaging - and deeply divisive - issue of Blair's close alliance with Bush over Iraq.

Fair cop

Now that Millennium & Copthorne has sold its landmark Plaza hotel in New York, it is somewhat bereft of celebrity trappings. The Plaza allowed the Singaporean group to associate itself with the likes of Groucho Marx and F. Scott Fitzgerald or, more recently, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who were married there.

Now M&C has had to fall back on the historic Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, which hosted the first academy awards in the 1920s but has occupied a less glitzy seat more recently as central LA declined.

Tony Potter, chief executive, said there was no reason why the famous venue should not once again host the Oscars. "Like anything in big cities, trends change. The hotel has been used for films and a lot of production crews stay here. Also, the area has picked up a lot," he suggests with increasing desperation. Hilary Swank was unavailable for comment.

observer@ft.com

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