RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. (AP) – With two visits in less than a year to the sprawling Sunnylands estate in Southern California, President Barack Obama is helping to fulfill the dream of the late philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg, who hoped the desert property they used as a winter home would become the “Camp David of the West.”
Obama has spent two long weekends at Sunnylands since June, mixing diplomatic duties with the pursuit of a favorite pastime: golf.
By comparison, he visited the real Camp David, the official mountaintop presidential retreat in Maryland, three times last year. He most recently took family and friends to the secluded mountain compound in August to celebrate his 52nd birthday but has yet to visit this year.
Obama is the eighth American president since the mid-1960s to enjoy the 200-acre Sunnylands property, which includes the Annenberg’s 25,000-square-foot home, a nine-hole golf course, tennis court, 11 lakes, a swimming pool and a mausoleum where the Annenbergs are interred. The property also has many walking paths, reflecting pools and multiple varieties of wildlife and arid-landscape plants.
Hosting King Abdullah II of Jordan at Sunnylands this past weekend, Obama said the lush venue would allow for extensive talks in a less formal setting.
He welcomed China’s new president, Xi Jinping, here last June for a two-day summit that was partly designed to help them start to build a personal relationship even as they hashed out thorny issues between their countries.
Besides his charitable giving, Walter Annenberg was a diplomat who entertained royalty, presidents and celebrities at Sunnylands. The Annenbergs willed the property to a family trust in hopes that U.S. presidents and other high-level U.S. government officials would use its rooms and lush gardens for retreats that further international diplomacy, said Janice Lyle, director of the Sunnylands Center & Gardens.
“Walter and Leonore Annenberg were outstanding philanthropists and diplomats who hoped that their estate would become the ‘Camp David of the West,’ where the president could meet with world leaders to promote global peace and facilitate international agreement,” said Geoffrey Cowan, president of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands.
Lyle said the center was thrilled that Obama was visiting twice in less than a year.
“People are just taken by this beauty and it allows them to relax and to interact in more meaningful ways than they might somewhere else,” she said.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, celebrated every New Year’s holiday during his two-terms in office at Sunnylands. Reagan and Walter Annenberg, who also lived in the Philadelphia area, had a decades-long friendship that started before Reagan gave up acting for politics.
In 1990, George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, held a state dinner at Sunnylands for Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu.
Gerald and Betty Ford also visited. They had a home in Rancho Mirage, and the Betty Ford Center is located here, too.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was a former president when he came in 1966. He also had a home in the area.
Presidents Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also passed through Sunnylands. Nixon drafted his final State of the Union address while visiting Sunnylands in January 1974. He visited again the following August after he had resigned the presidency.
After his meetings with Xi and Abdullah, Obama opted to spend the weekend on the property instead of immediately returning to Washington. Both times, a trio of childhood friends from his native Hawaii flew in to tee off with him on the estate’s nine-hole golf-course despite the stifling desert heat.
Last year, Obama spent the entire weekend cloistered behind Sunnylands’ gates, but this time he made a couple of trips off campus.
On Saturday night, Obama’s motorcade took him to the mountaintop home of Michael Smith, the interior designer who decorated the Oval Office and the Obama living quarters in the White House. On Sunday, Obama passed up the Sunnylands course in favor of a private, 19-hole one owned by supporter Larry Ellison, the Oracle software company co-founder who Forbes magazine says is worth $41 billion.
Obama played all 19 holes. It was the 161st golf game of his presidency.
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