THURMONT, Md. (AP) -- The midnight fog wreathed the oaks and maples at Camp David last week, turning headlights to silvery shimmers in the dense woods with only token power to cut through the mist.
It was hard to see at first that history was being given a second chance.
After nine days of impasse, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had just determined that the price of failing to reach a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement was too high to pay without greater effort to achieve it.
When President Clinton boarded Air Force One at dawn Thursday, to ponder the demands of world economics at a summit in Japan, Barak and Arafat slogged on alone in the mountainside refuge whose name has become entwined with hope that peace can trump fear and suspicion.
Camp David has been an emblem of odds-on struggle since Sept. 17, 1978.
That's when President Carter guided Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat to a last-minute agreement after talks that lasted just a day short of two weeks and seemed predestined to fail.
Last week's fog made Camp David seem remote from the world. That's exactly what Franklin Roosevelt had in mind in 1942 when he named the place Shangri-La and began to use it as a sanctuary less than two hours' drive from the pressures of wartime Washington.
Americans had made James Hilton's 1933 novel, "Lost Horizons," a best seller, then a popular movie. Thus, they knew "Shangri-La" as a mountainous Asian eden "where all the fret of existence had ebbed away."
In 1942, reporters wanted to know where the U.S. warplanes that raided Tokyo had flown from. "From our secret base in Shangri-La," Roosevelt replied.
Dale Nelson, a former Associated Press White House correspondent and author of the 1995 history, "The President is at Camp David," gives the postscript:
"The reporters did not know that on the very next day, Roosevelt would be driven 60 miles north into the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland to choose a site for a presidential weekend retreat from the 'fret of exist existence' of the wartime capital.
The Roosevelt Shangri-La, a 143-acre rough-and-ready camp rather hidden in the trees, has always offered presidents that sense of escape and worry-free repose.
"I leave my troubles outside the gate," Lady Bird Johnson once said.
But from its earliest days Camp David has been more than just a retreat from the world. The world's leaders have long had it on their maps.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was the trail blazer. Relaxing with Roosevelt, he puffed cigar smoke at mosquitoes and helped the president lay the policy groundwork for the Normandy invasion. They conferred in Roosevelt's cabin called The Bear's Den. Since Dwight Eisenhower's time the place has been made far more luxurious and renamed "Aspen."
Eisenhower, in a renaming mood, found Shangri-La too fanciful and called the place Camp David instead, giving a nod to his father and 5-year-old grandson, Davids both.
The name would stick.
"In Roosevelt's day it was a hide-out with little hot water and with brush growing to the windowsills," Nelson writes. Harry Truman had the brush cleared and Eisenhower built a putting green in the clearing; Nixon added a heated swimming pool. Nelson summarizes, "Presidents and their families persisted in calling it rustic. Others called its trappings luxurious, even princely."
Last year, a small pool of reporters, summoned to Laurel Cabin to hear Clinton read a statement, got a rare glimpse inside the security fences.
A boardroom table the size of a sailboat nearly filled a meeting room at Laurel Lodge. A large, wooden Camp David seal and antique maps of the region hung on the paneled walls. Two maps included nearby Gettysburg, Pa., and Sharpsburg, Md., sites of two Civil War battlefields used by several presidents to show visitors the enormous human cost of war.
It's the negotiating session, not George Bush's horseshoe pit, that gives Camp David its place in modern history. And it was Jimmy Carter, mule-stubborn and untiring, who made the name Camp David synonymous with a negotiating marathon that blooms only when all hope for success has been abandoned.
Carter had reserved just three days in September 1978 for the meetings with Begin and Sadat. He kept his calendar clear for four extra days in case they were needed. They were.
In all, Carter was to write, it took "thirteen intense and discouraging days, with success in prospect only during the final hours."
Bill Clinton would agree that the days of Camp David II also were "intense and discouraging."
And the power to predict the outcome was as imperfect as the ability of headlights to pierce a foggy night in Maryland's western mountains.
(Lawrence L. Knutson has covered the White House, Congress and Washington's history for more than 30 years.)
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