They tucked into chunks of smoked beef tenderloin, traded compliments, and took a rambling walk under the gray central Texas skies with a Scottie frolicking at their heels while the birds chirruped and a storm brewed over the 1,600-acre Prairie Chapel Ranch.
It was down-home Texas hospitality at its best, and if the routine by now runs like clockwork, the results never fail to hit the mark.
The morning after his arrival at President Bush's Crawford ranch last weekend, the often dour Australian Prime Minister John Howard was all smiles at a bucolically picture-perfect press briefing. Paying tribute to Bush's leadership style, the Australian "man of steel" called it resolute and clear under "great obstructionism."
Distinguished guest and famous host then swapped souvenirs — a pair of monogrammed cowboy boots bearing a map of Australia for Howard and a classic Down Under whip and rancher hat for Bush.
But if the public proceedings on the ranch seem to err toward the light, the implications of a ranch invitation are not.
"For a foreign leader, a visit to Crawford has become the ultimate honor — the place to be seen," says George Stephanopoulos, anchor of ABCNEWS' This Week and former adviser to President Clinton. "For Bush, it's an invaluable part of his diplomatic toolbox."
Extended only to a handful of world leaders so far, an invitation to the ranch has served a variety of purposes through the ups and downs of the Bush presidency.
"Offering a visit to the ranch can help start a new relationship [like] the visit of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin [in November 2001], smooth a rocky relationship [like the April 2002] visit of Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, or reward a friend who went out on a limb," says Stephanopoulos.
In recent days, a ranch stopover is increasingly being viewed as Bush's diplomatic "thank you" to statesmen such as Howard and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar for overcoming widespread domestic opposition to support Washington's war in Iraq.
Texas Charm — at a Price?
But back in Australia, defense experts and policy pundits watched the hearty display of bonhomie at the Prairie Chapel Ranch with trepidation. Texas hospitality, the experts warned, could be served up with side order of some serious arm-twisting and a heavy tab.
Put simply, although Washington is grateful for Australia's 2,000-odd troop contribution to coalition combat forces, the United States also wants to see Australia pitch in with peacekeeping in postwar Iraq.
With significant peacekeeping obligations in the Asia-Pacific region — including East Timor — Australia has, however, resolutely resisted the pressure.
Just days before the ranch visit, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice expressed optimism that Canberra would participate in peacekeeping in Iraq during an interview with an Australian daily.
"It's certainly our hope that, as we plan for stability operations in Iraq, that Australia will be part of that," she told The Daily Telegraph. "I'm sure it will be, I don't know at what level."
Matters Convivial and Contentious
As it turned out, Australia's potential peacekeeping role in Iraq did not come up in talks between the two heads of state, Australian officials — speaking on condition of anonymity — told reporters in Crawford.