Bush and Putin Take a Spin

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, May 9, 2005; 1:21 PM

Russian President Vladimir Putin is the walking, talking, human embodiment of one of the White House's bigger conundrums.

President Bush speaks passionately about the importance of spreading democracy around the globe. Meanwhile, Putin speaks wistfully about the Soviet Union and continues to consolidate power in what is looking more and more like a return to autocracy.

So Bush's trip to Russia was widely seen as being fraught with tension about the future.

But instead -- somehow -- the focus shifted to a largely academic disagreement about the past. And in the present, we were treated to a great big show of friendship between the two leaders.

In Thursday's column , I speculated over which image of the trip would emerge triumphant: The president speaking glowingly of freedom in some of Europe's newer democracies? Or the president cheering as a Russian military parade rumbles by in Red Square celebrating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany?

Little did I know that the winner would be the image of Bush and Putin waving from the inside of a vintage 1956 Russian sedan.

But indeed, here are photos of that gloriously what-me-worry moment, from AFP and from the White House .

(Here's an Associated Press photo of Putin showing Bush how the car works.)

Putin yesterday welcomed Bush to his residence outside Moscow, where he keeps the pristine white 1956 Volga GAZ-21. As Christopher Cooper of the Wall Street Journal wrote in his pool report to his colleagues, after Bush and Putin spent some time together in Putin's residence, they "emerged to take a spin in the white Volga. POTUS looked taken aback when Mr. Putin indicated that he should drive. The car was pointed at the press. 'Be careful,' POTUS said, then shouted 'He's giving me a driving lesson,' as the car stuttered off at a slow roll.

"The car followed the drive down to the right and up over the ridge, without headlights on, disappearing in the birches. Moments later, the Volga emerged and drove past the guesthouse. 'I'm having so much fun we're going for another lap,'' POTUS said. Both men waved at the pool."

Red Square

Today, the two leaders sat side by side as they reviewed a military parade very much in the Soviet tradition.

Peter Baker and Peter Finn write in The Washington Post: "With a flourish of martial showmanship and solemn remembrances, the world's leaders marked the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany on Monday, putting aside differences over historical interpretation for a moment of international solidarity."

In Latvia on Saturday, Bush clearly implied that an expression of contrition from Putin about the post-war Soviet domination of Eastern Europe would be appropriate. But Putin did not oblige.

Baker and Finn write: "Bush evinced no discomfort reviewing a parade of goose-stepping soldiers, some hoisting banners that said 'USSR' and bore the visage of Lenin. Still, perhaps in deference to Western sensibilities, Lenin's tomb itself, where the embalmed body of the founder of the Soviet Union remains in state, was discreetly shrouded by a large banner."

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "U.S. President George W. Bush and Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin put on their own show of bonhomie at Monday's grand military parade on Red Square, setting aside political strains as they smiled and chatted like old friends. . . .

"It is the first time a U.S. president has attended a Russian military parade in the cobble-stoned Red Square on such a grand scale."

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Bush was comfortable amid the trappings of communist power. It demonstrates "how far we've come in the world," Bartlett said.

"Continuing the chummy exchanges that marked their discussions and dinner the evening before, the two smiled broadly when Bush arrived for the parade. As Bush lowered his umbrella, despite the rain, for a snapshot, Putin laughingly did the same. Putin reserved the seat next to him for Bush -- whom he called his guest of 'special importance' above all others. Later, Bush remained glued to the Russian leader's side as they strolled, red carnations in hand, to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier."

The only imagery I saw of Bush looking the least bit sour today was this Reuters photo of him watching French President Jacques Chirac kiss Laura Bush's hand.

Bush is not expected to make any public comments today.

Mi Dacha Es Su Dacha

Yesterday, in Moscow, it was all smiles.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush opened a diplomatically sensitive 24-hour visit here Sunday and moved immediately to smooth over days of prickly exchanges with President Vladimir Putin about past Soviet tyranny and Russia's current drift toward authoritarianism.

"Bush and Putin embraced and smiled broadly as they greeted each other at the Russian presidential residence, then took a joy ride in a vintage 1956 Soviet automobile and finally sat down to dinner together with their wives. The determined show of friendship appeared intended to demonstrate that the recent fracas about the Soviet legacy after World War II would not damage the relationship.

"While aides said Bush raised concerns about Russian democracy during a private meeting with Putin, the president decided to keep his remarks on the subject behind closed doors, at least until he leaves."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin even took a brief spin on the dacha grounds in a gleaming 1956 Volga, with Mr. Bush at the wheel. In a photograph that is likely to become a symbol of the good will that the White House and Kremlin sought to portray here on a damp spring evening, the two presidents waved from the windows as the car, purchased by Mr. Putin last year, emerged from a forest of birches. . . .

"But the two sides announced no formal agreements or breakthroughs, and the meeting seemed more of a place holder until Russia holds a summit meeting of the world's major industrial democracies, the Group of 8, in St. Petersburg next summer."

Barrie McKenna writes in Toronto's Globe and Mail: "George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin may clash on the history of the last century, but they seem to get along fine in the here and now."

Here is the transcript of the brief remarks by Putin and Bush as they arrived at the residence.

As Cooper wrote in his pool report: "The whole thing took less than 10 minutes and broke up rather quickly when a cheeky reporter yelled, 'President Bush, why do you think you can still trust President Putin?'' His answer was a smile and a 'nice try.'. . . .

"On the way out, POTUS cocked his finger at your pooler. 'Behave yourself,' he said. 'The bars close late here.' "

The Latvian Contrition

Bush started off his trip with a stop in Riga, the capital of Latvia.

Peter Baker wrote in Sunday's Washington Post: "Bush escalated an increasingly pointed long-distance debate with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the true legacy of the end of World War II. With Putin refusing to renounce the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states, Bush tried to provide a model for expressing contrition for past national mistakes.

"In a speech to Latvian leaders, Bush cited the U.S. role at the Yalta conference in 1945, which is widely seen as having paved the way for the Soviet Union to dominate not only the Baltic states but also Eastern Europe for nearly half a century. And to make the point that the United States owns up to 'the injustices of our history,' he reminded his audience -- and by extension Putin -- of the shameful heritage of American slavery and centuries of racial oppression."

Is Yalta something the president should apologize for?

Writes Baker: "Many critics, particularly Republicans, maintain that Roosevelt effectively sold out Eastern Europe at Yalta, while defenders say the conference simply recognized the reality on the ground given that the Red Army already controlled the territory. Others point out that the Yalta agreement included Soviet commitments to free elections in countries like Poland, obligations it broke. That was the view of past presidents, including Ronald Reagan."

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush said the agreement sacrificed smaller nations in the interest of stability, a point that he used to justify his agenda of promoting democracy throughout the world, even at great cost."

But Wallsten writes that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking to reporters afterwards, "appeared to back away from that statement. Some had interpreted it as a slight of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who signed the deal.

"'I think he was trying to make clear that nobody doubts the intentions of the American leadership in 1945, which was clearly to end the war and to have free elections in Eastern Europe,' she said.

"'You may remember that the plan was to have free elections in Poland, followed by free elections in the rest of Eastern Europe. It didn't turn out that way, and, unfortunately, people were consigned to a divided Europe.' "

Here is the transcript of Bush's press conference in Latvia with Baltic leaders, and the text of his speech in Latvia.

A Brief Break in the Bubble

Bush also made a stop in the Netherlands and gave a speech to Dutch and U.S. World War II veterans at the Netherlands-American Cemetery and Memorial.

But before that, he met with some Dutch young people.

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "At home, President Bush regularly travels the nation for 'conversations' with hand-picked audiences who routinely shower him and his policies with praise. But abroad on Sunday, some youths in Holland had a rare, unscripted opportunity to ask questions that some Americans might want to pose if given the chance.

"Based on the questions asked in the first half-hour, before reporters were ushered from the room, this group of students might not have passed muster at a typical White House event."

Bush was asked about rolling back the Patriot Act and increasing aid to the poor before the press had to leave. Here is the transcript of the public part of the event.

Documents Galore

Here is the text of the gaggle by Scott McClellan on Air Force One on the way to Latvia. An excerpt:

"Q If the President is going to be ending tyranny, is he going to be staying up later on this trip? (Laughter.)

"MR. McCLELLAN: Looking at the schedule -- it depends on what time zone you're in."

Here is the briefing by Rice and Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the Bush-Putin meeting, and more on the same meeting from national security adviser Stephen Hadley .

Bush also conducted several pre-trip interviews, with television correspondents from Latvia , Estonia , Lithuania , the Netherlands , Russia and Georgia .

Meanwhile, on the Domestic Front

There is no domestic front.

Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "He has traveled from coast to coast pitching his Social Security plan, devoting speech after speech and even a rare prime-time news conference to his top legislative priority. But as much as President Bush wants to turn more attention in his second term to domestic policy, the rest of the world keeps forcing itself back onto his agenda."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "The White House and its allies are increasingly prodding, imploring, mocking, daring and threatening Democrats in the hopes of forcing them to put on the table their ideas for dealing with the retirement system's projected long-term problems."

The rationale: What Bush "needs most is the political cover for his party that Democrats would provide by expressing support for the benefit cuts, tax increases or other painful changes widely seen as necessary to assure Social Security's solvency as the population ages.

"So far, Democratic leaders in Congress have refused to play along, and there is little indication that they will change their minds. Their political reasoning is that Mr. Bush's approach is sinking of its own accord, and that there is no reason to jump in the quicksand with him."

The British Memo

Warren P. Strobel and John Walcott of Knight Ridder Newspapers break the American media's silence on this story: "A highly classified British memo, leaked in the midst of Britain's just-concluded election campaign, indicates that President Bush decided to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by summer 2002 and was determined to ensure that U.S. intelligence data supported his policy."

New on the White House Web Site

The White House Web site has just launched a new online tour of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building .

Lonnie Hovey, who has been directing the building's preservation, will discuss its history on " Ask the White House " today at 3 p.m. ET.

First Lady Watch

Even Putin is aware of the first lady's comic stylings.

In their brief remarks yesterday, Putin told Bush: "Recently I took a look at the coverage of your meeting with the press corps. Well, I could see how Laura attacked you sometimes, so at today's dinner we will have a chance to protect you."

Bush replied: "She was quite the comedian."

Matthew Cooper writes in Time: "Several veteran reporters at the White House correspondents' dinner noted that one reason the comedy routine fell to Laura was that Bush didn't have much to joke about. . . .

"Laura can't win over the Bush haters. But a comedy routine that was at times racy is a reminder that Laura is not a founding member of Focus on the Family. Whatever hard-core Democrats may imagine, she has never been a nodding Stepford wife."

And, Cooper writes: "Laura has been saving Bush for decades. She persuaded him to stop drinking on his 40th birthday. He converted to her Methodism, giving him the religious faith that has guided his remarkable trajectory. At the moment she has no plans to campaign for his signature, second-term Social Security proposal, but a senior White House official says, 'We're not ruling anything out.'"

Robin Abcarian writes in the Los Angeles Times: "A certain public blossoming of the usually reticent first lady has intensified in the last few months, ever since her husband was sworn in for his second term and she appeared at his side as a more svelte, more fashionable incarnation of herself."

Abcarian tagged along for the first lady's recent trip to California.

"Although Bush's encounters in classrooms and small discussions were choreographed for cameras and reporters, there were rare, unscripted moments that revealed something of her old-fashioned sensibility. At Chipman Middle School in Alameda, she was asked by a student during a round-table discussion what subject she taught when she was a teacher.

"'Well, I taught 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade, so I taught really every subject, but reading was my favorite . . . I was not a very good math teacher and I think that's kind of a problem in elementary schools. A lot of -- especially women teachers -- are great in language arts and not so great in math.'

"En route to Washington, Bush clarified her remark. 'That is a stereotype,' she said, 'but I think that actually is also proven.' She also said that her daughter, Barbara, a Yale graduate, is a 'math whiz.' 'I don't know where she got it,' said Bush, who is married to a Harvard MBA. 'I guess she got it from her dad.' "

Jacqueline Leo profiles the first lady in Reader's Digest. "I'm not really interested in running for anything. That's just not my personality. I have the wonderful opportunity of being able to do what elected officials do without actually having to run myself," Bush tells Leo.

Leo also quotes the first lady's close friend Penny Royall: "It's fair to say that Laura is a natural introvert. She's not shy. She prefers quiet company. Just a week or so ago, I was over on Saturday, we worked out, showered and dressed, had a latte. We were sitting in the living room. She was working, I was reading a book. We were quietly sitting, just being together. The President came in and said, 'Aren't you all going to talk to each other? You haven't said one word to each other.' We were just quietly enjoying being there together."


Paul Bedard writes in U.S. News and World Report: "Like his father before him, who used to play 'speed golf' and a funky combo racquetball and volleyball called 'Wallyball,' Dubya likes to exercise hard with his friends, and his latest sport is mountain biking. But he's gotten so good at it that he's singling out his strongest buddies for invites to Camp David. White House correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh, author of a new book on Camp David and other presidential retreats, tells us, 'Bush is looking for the physically fit.' No doubt, since Walsh says the prez has crafted a course of steep hills around Camp David to ride his Trek in 90-minute races, sometimes leaving his friends in his dust. Not everybody has to ride, though: Bush still likes to do jigsaw puzzles."

Walsh's new book is called "From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats."

Walsh himself writes in U.S. News: "Like Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush gets back to his ranch as often as he can. There he has made many key decisions in directing the war on terrorism. 'We met on the Iraq war here a lot,' Bush said in an interview at the ranch. 'Transformation issues have come up here as a result of annually the joint chiefs coming down, or [Joint Chiefs Chairman] Dick Myers coming down with [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld and others to go over different aspects of military planning. . . . I spend more time particularly when senior members of my administration come, thinking big-picture items--relationship between the United States and Europe, for example.'. . . .

"Prairie Chapel Ranch is home, a place where Bush can spend time with his wife, Laura, and friends, chop cedar, and clear brush. He goes mountain biking, listens in the morning for the whistling calls of the bobwhite quail, and takes walks with Laura amid the ash, walnut, sycamore, oak, and pecan trees. He entertains small groups of friends over dinners of broiled fish caught in his stocked lake and pitchers of iced tea or diet cola. The president and first lady like to retire early, rarely later than 10 p.m. They get up at dawn."


Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "The Senate's top Democrat, Harry M. Reid of Nevada, called President Bush a 'loser' yesterday just about the time Air Force One was touching down on foreign soil. Reid immediately called the White House to express regret.

"The remark violated the restraint that the opposition party customarily exercises when a president is abroad and reflected the acrid environment on Capitol Hill as Republicans prepare to change a rule that lets Democrats use delaying tactics to block the confirmation of judges. . . .

"Aides said Reid realized right away that he had overstepped. He at first tried to call Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. but when he could not reach him because the presidential party had headed to bed, the senator talked to deputy chief of staff Karl Rove."

Unbanned for Bush?

Paul Nowell reports for the Associated Press that the pastor of a small North Carolina Church is now trying to welcome back the nine members of his church who reported that they were kicked out because they refused to support President Bush.

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