WASHINGTON — In the burst of conviviality at their brief introductory meeting at a castle in Slovenia, President George W. Bush called Russia's President Vladimir Putin "trustworthy," going further than the Reagan slogan of "trust, but verify." We were witnessing the latest in a history of East-West summit romances, most of which have ended badly.
Since Franklin D. Roosevelt, who called Stalin "Uncle Joe" and hoped to inaugurate the era of East-West cooperation after the defeat of Hitler, presidents have tended to believe that their charm could accomplish what bureaucrats could not.
The 1955 "Spirit of Geneva," where President Dwight D. Eisenhower introduced Nikita Khrushchev to the martini cocktail, evaporated with the Soviet crackdown on Hungary a year later. The attempt at personal diplomacy was revived with the 1959 "Spirit of Camp David," at the end of Mr. Khrushchev's tumultuous American tour. But the Paris summit of 1960 and a planned Eisenhower trip to the Soviet Union (where a golf course was already being built) collapsed with the shooting down of a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union.
Khrushchev's flirtation with President Kennedy (for whom he jokingly offered to campaign) broke off early at the summit in Vienna in 1961, which was followed by a Berlin crisis, and the Cuban missile crisis.
President Johnson sought to establish a personal bond with Premier Alexei Kosygin at a summit in Glassboro, New Jersey (chosen because it was midway between the United Nations in New York and the White House in Washington). But the "Spirit of Glassboro" did not survive the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Perhaps the most successful East-West relationship was between President Nixon and the lackluster Leonid Brezhnev. They signed arms-control pacts, including the Antiballistic Missile Treaty in 1972. Mr. Nixon was invited to deliver a first-ever television address to the Soviet people. Weeks before Nixon's resignation in 1974, and while the impeachment process was nearing its climax, Nixon was visiting with Mr. Brezhnev in the Crimea, and even discussing the scheduling of the next summit in the US.
Before President Jimmy Carter could attempt to establish a personal relationship with Brezhnev, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan put relations into deep freeze.
President Reagan, in his second term, became good friends with Mikhail Gorbachev. Their relationship, initiated with a Geneva summit in 1985, reached fruition with the Reagan trip to Moscow in 1988. They stood side by side before crowds in Red Square as Reagan proclaimed that the Soviet Union was no longer an "evil empire."
President George Bush continued that relationship and, at a summit session in Helsinki, Finland, in 1990, elevated the Soviet Union to the level of "partner." After the Soviet Union's collapse, President Clinton enjoyed a back-slapping relationship with Boris Yelstin, Russia's first president, that chilled with Mr. Yeltsin's increasingly autocratic rule.
Now we have what appears to be love at first sight between President George W. Bush and KGB veteran Vladimir Putin. Mr. Bush won points by according Mr. Putin what every Russian leader yearns for: a public display of respect from the superpower. That didn't prevent Putin from warning, at a meeting with American correspondents two days later, that Russia would use multiple warheads on its missiles to overwhelm any shield devised without its concurrence.
The burgeoning Bush-Putin relationship, symbolized by invitations to each other's homes, may be so far only a matter of atmospherics. That is not to say it is not important. Putin, for all his ploys with China, has signalled that he sees Russia's fate as lying mainly in the West - the European Community, the US, and NATO.
Putin, didn't get much notice when, reading from what he called a declassified secret memorandum during the joint news conference, revealed that the Soviet Union had applied for NATO membership as early as 1954 - and had been turned down. It is not likely that such an application would have been meant seriously, but Putin used it to signify an interest in joining NATO.
One cannot foresee whether the Bush-Putin prenuptial agreement will survive when they get down to cases of NATO expansion and missile defense. But the development of this latest East-West romance in the rarified atmosphere of the summit will be fascinating to watch.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. His memoir, 'Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism' (Pocket), has just been published.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor