A Chat in the Oval Office

Sometimes bad luck is good luck. A few weeks ago, I’d had an appointment to interview President Bush for a book on Ronald Reagan. It was canceled due to Mr. Bush’s upcoming trip to Europe, then rescheduled, and when I walked into the Oval Office last week I found a president in a talkative mood.

Europe was on his mind. His thoughts were on his meetings with European Union leaders and with Russian President Vladimir Putin, from which he had returned three days before. As the official purpose of the interview had not been to discuss Mr. Bush’s trip, I asked officials at the White House afterward whether his comments on the trip could be used for publication in an article for The Wall Street Journal. They approved.

I had not seen Mr. Bush since late last summer, and he seemed to me changed. His hair is already grayer after five months in office, and as he grows older he looks to me more like his father, in the angles of his face and the way he moves it. Gone is the tentativeness of 20 months ago, of the lost man of the early Republican debates. In its place seems an even-keeled confidence, even a robust faith in his own perceptions and judgments.

He was tanned, and is clearly still exercising. He wore a blue pin-striped suit, white shirt and blue tie, sat in the chair he uses for photo-ops when dignitaries visit, and surveyed the bright room before him.

The president referred several times to the mystique of the presidency, and pointed with a grin to a side door. That’s where people wait outside and figure out how to tell me off, he said. Then, he said, they come in, see the Oval Office, meet the president and say, It’s great to be here, great to see you!

His Oval Office is bright, determinedly so, no high formality, no deep blues. But no one, he says, can enter without a tie, and though we talk for 35 minutes he never unbuttons or removes his jacket.

The president noted the carved American eagle on the front of his antique desk, the one used by Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. The head of the eagle, he notes, is turned toward the arrows it holds in its talon. But look here, he says, at the American eagle in the presidential seal on the rug: The head is turned away from the arrows and toward the olive branches he holds in his other talon. “Harry Truman changed it,” he says. “He wanted America looking toward peace.”

Then he talked Europe, and you could hear the sound of the Bush foreign policy at work, or rather the thinking that determines that policy at its most expansive.

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Mr. Bush came away from Europe with a deep feeling of satisfaction at how he’d done and who he’d been. He returned hopeful and determined, with what seemed a heightened sense that history is not just something that happens to the world but is something that human beings produce.

He knew the reigning media cliché going in was Will Bumpkin Boy Embarrass Us? But he wasn’t concerned about that. He enjoys being underestimated and likes the columns that begin “Once again Bush was underestimated.”

But Mr. Bush feels the real story of the summit is that he stood his ground with Europe and began a new relationship with Mr. Putin.

“I didn’t think about Ronald Reagan when I was there, but now that you bring it up. . . . With all due modesty, I think Ronald Reagan would have been proud of how I conducted myself. I went to Europe a humble leader of a great country, and stood my ground. I wasn’t going to yield. I listened, but I made my point.

“And I went to dinner, as Karen [Hughes, who sat in on the interview] would tell you, with 15 leaders of the EU, and patiently sat there as all 15 in one form or another told me how wrong I was” about the Kyoto accords. “And at the end I said, ‘I appreciate your point of view, but this is the American position because it’s right for America.’ ” Mr. Bush said the issue of a missile defense was similar to global warming, though to a certain degree there was “a different attitude” among the EU leaders; they were “a little more forward leaning” on it.

“My point is that I was holding my ground on issues I think are important for our country. And I believe in missile defense in particular, that as a result of standing my ground based on principle, not based on hostility but based upon a positive point of view, that I’ll be able to reach an accord with Putin.”

I asked Mr. Bush if there is anything he’d like to ask Mr. Reagan. He said he’d like to talk to the former president about his meeting with Mr. Putin.

“How was it with Putin?” I asked.

“It was a big moment,” said Mr. Bush. “I found a man who realizes his future lies with the West, not the East, that we share common security concerns, primarily Islamic fundamentalism, that he understands missiles could affect him just as much as us. On the other hand he doesn’t want to be diminished by America.”

Mr. Bush said he is seeking to encourage a relationship with Mr. Putin, and that this hope was reflected in his public comments.

“I just didn’t complete the Reagan sentence,” he said. “Reagan said, ‘Trust and verify.’ My attitude was, I said ‘Trust.’ Sophisticates surely understand that once you lie, you know, that trust isn’t forever, trust is something you must earn. But when I looked at him I felt like he was shooting straight with me.” I asked the president if he would attempt to keep up a personal relationship with Mr. Putin.

He said, “I will. That’s why I’m going to invite him to my ranch.”

He spoke sympathetically of the challenges Mr. Putin faces—an “anti-American bureaucracy” that is “a hangover” from the Cold War. He mused that Mr. Putin probably thinks that the American president is dealing with “a bunch of hard-liners here about him, too.” The best way to “welcome him to the West,” and to “encourage him to make the right choices in terms of the rule of law and transparency and defense measures is to break down any barriers that he may have.”

“I told him, I said in a meeting, ‘You know, if you look at me and think I’m trying to pull one over on you and trying to weaken Russia, then we don’t have much to talk about. We can go through the diplomatic niceties.’ I said, ‘Mr. Putin, you’ve got to figure—you’ve got to look at me and decide whether I am hostile or not hostile, whether or not I want to diminish Russia or whether I want Russia as a friend and ally with whom we can trade and keep the peace. And . . . if you think negative, then this is going to be an interesting conversation for us but short-lived, and we’ll go out and play like we had a good conversation.’ And he thought that was interesting.”

Mr. Putin spoke at some length about Russian history, and seemed intent on making the case that Russia had sacrificed a great deal in the transition to democracy. Mr. Bush listened and did not argue, although at one point, he said, he felt like saying, “Wait a minute, you didn’t give up anything. The people actually demanded freedom and you didn’t have any choice.” But Mr. Putin, he said, viewed the great changes of the past decade as a matter of giving things up, and referred often to his country’s debt.

The president listened, and noted Mr. Putin’s interest in history. Mr. Putin said, “Yes, I love history.”

Mr. Bush: “I said, ‘You know, it’s interesting, I do too, I like history a lot.’ ”

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“I said,” Mr. Bush continued, “ ’You know, sometimes when you study history you get stuck in the past.’ I said, ‘President Putin, you and I have a chance to make history. The reason one should love history is to determine how to make good history. And this meeting could be the beginning of making some fabulous history. We’re young. Why do you want to stay stuck? This isn’t the Nixon-Brezhnev conversations! Why do you want to stay stuck in that kind of attitude?’ ”

Mr. Putin, he said, seemed taken aback. “I said, ‘Why aren’t we thinking about how to fashion something different [so that when historians think] about the Bush-Putin meeting and the Bush-Putin relationship they think about positive things? It’s negative to think about blowing each other up. That’s not a positive thought. That’s a Cold War thought. That’s a thought when people were enemies with each other.’ ”

He said Mr. Putin seemed to like what he heard.

The president spoke sympathetically of the challenge Mr. Putin faced during their joint press conference. Mr. Bush noted that observers had thought Mr. Putin seemed somewhat unsure at their meeting with the press. Well, Mr. Bush said, it was the biggest press conference Mr. Putin had ever had. Mr. Putin, he noted, is 43 years old, and in some ways unused to the demands of the world stage. “For me I was used to it but . . . here’s a guy who walks out, and now he’s in the—this is the big leagues, this is the brightest klieg light of all. And it was a big press conference, there were a lot of people, and he didn’t know what to expect. I knew what to expect, I knew there were going to be essentially softball questions by those reporters.”

I said to President Bush, “What you’re telling me is this meeting with Putin was a kind of breakthrough, it was something special.” “I think it was,” said Mr. Bush.

Referring again to his hopes for a missile-defense agreement, the president said there was work to do. He told Mr. Putin he feared that diplomats would talk things into the ground. He asked if Mr. Putin would agree to a one-on-one negotiating dialogue between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Putin intimate Sergei Ivanov. Mr. Putin agreed without hesitation. Mr. Bush was encouraged. This way, he said, bureaucracies will not “jabber it to death.”

It seemed to me as I left the White House that one might infer—and perhaps should infer—from the president’s comments that he will not attempt to tear the ABM treaty up, but instead will move for an amendment that would allow further missile testing.

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Mr. Bush noted he has gotten some flak for saying he trusted Mr. Putin. “I’ve been noticing some of these guys popping off saying Bush shouldn’t have used the word ‘trust.’ If you’re trying to redefine a relationship, and somebody asks you, ‘Can you trust the guy?’ imagine what it’d have been like if I’d have stood up in front of the world and said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ Or, ‘You know, perhaps.’ Or, ‘It’s yet to be proven.’ To me my attitude is, and this is Reaganesque in a sense, ‘Yes I trust him, until he proves otherwise.’ But why say the ‘proves otherwise’? To me that goes without saying.”

He said he is aware that when he talks to Mr. Putin he is talking to a man who is not happy that “the Soviet Union is no longer the Soviet Union,” and that Russian leaders now are “stuck” with a reality in which they have “the Soviet Union’s debt” but not its “asset base.” He said he understood Mr. Putin’s frustration.

In this part of our talk, the president reminded me again of his father, whose temperament and talents were well suited to diplomacy, and who made an effort to understand the forces that pulled and pushed allies and adversaries. This part of his nature helped him build the most successful international coalition of our time in the Gulf War. But it also led him to say essentially nothing the day the Berlin Wall came down. He had sympathy for how the Soviet leaders felt, and didn’t want to “gloat.” And so the end of an epic struggle in human history went unremarked by the victor. Empathy can be a double-edged sword.

The president said that Mr. Putin seems to want a relationship with the United States. Mr. Bush told Mr. Putin that in the long run his greatest likely challenge is from China, not America. “I said, ‘You’re European. Mr. President, you have no enemies in NATO; NATO has been good for you, not bad. NATO doesn’t create any problems for you.’“ On the issue of NATO enlargement, of including Russia in the alliance, Mr. Bush said it would be “interesting,” that part of him thought, “Why not?” though “I haven’t thought about the nuance of it.”

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After I left the Oval Office, I talked to Karen Hughes, who told me that when Presidents Putin and Bush were walking in the gardens after their meeting they chatted by themselves, without translators. Mr. Putin is taking English lessons for one hour each day, and wanted to talk to Mr. Bush on his own. Mr. Putin told the president, “I see you named your daughters after your mother and your mother-in-law.” Mr. Bush smiled and said, “Aren’t I a good diplomat?” Mr. Putin laughed and said, “I did the same thing!”