At a dinner a week or so ago, three Washington biggies - a former secretary of State, a prominent newspaper publisher, and a United States senator - were musing about President Bush's second-term agenda.
"What," asked one, "is the political agenda behind Social Security reform?" What, in other words, is the gain from taking on this controversial project fraught with pitfalls? Replied one of the others, who had discussed the issue with the president: "There is no political agenda. He's doing this because he believes it's right."
George W. Bush will probably go down in history as the president who reveled in confronting big problems. At home he has elected to tackle such extraordinarily difficult issues as Social Security reform and tax simplification, which from a political point of view might be more comfortably left for a later president to wrestle with. Abroad he is on a crusade to spread democracy and bring about the ultimate elimination of tyranny, a goal at which the more cynical have scoffed as being simplistic and unattainable.
But there Mr. Bush was last week looking an uncomfortable Vladimir Putin in the eye, the same man into whose eyes he had looked four years earlier and found trustworthy, and telling him frankly that his flagging commitment to democracy was now a concern and a disappointment.
The United States and Russia have come a long way since the bad old days of the cold war. Russia is no longer the military threat it once was. The new "partnership" has paid off for the US with Russian helpfulness in the war against terrorism and a number of other areas. It would have been easier for Bush to forgo the criticism and focus only on the partnership. Bush did indeed stress the "positive results" of that partnership.
But it was refreshing to hear a US president publicly tell the former KGB operative who now rules Russia, "It is democracy and freedom that bring true security in every land." What went on privately between the two would have been even more fascinating to learn. Bush would undoubtedly have been even more direct. Putin would undoubtedly have said he can only stand so much public lecturing from an American leader.
But both the public and private exchanges in Bratislava, Slovakia, last week underline this president's near-Messianic commitment to preaching his message of democracy both to those who yearn for it and those who fear it.
We do not know what the ultimate effect will be. President Putin responded archly that "in the operation of major democratic institutions there may be some differences." Indeed, "democracy" may take different forms around the world and not necessarily be a mirror of the American model. But it certainly has become an international political buzz word since Bush announced it as the major plank in his administration's second-term foreign policy.
It has captured the attention of some notable laggards in the democratic process.
At the weekend, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak instructed parliament to make constitutional changes that for the first time would permit direct multiparty presidential elections. This was a welcome, surprising move that must be watched to see if it really heralds an end to long autocratic rule. It follows a sharp US protest against the Mubarak regime's jailing of an opposition leader in January.
Saudi Arabia took a baby step in the right direction recently with elections for municipal councils, but the Bush administration did not shrink from rebuking this important ally for arresting and punishing peaceful protesters in January. Meanwhile, Palestinians recently conducted their own democratic elections; an extraordinary demonstration of people power in Lebanon has forced the resignation of the pro-Syrian prime minister; and Iraqis have sent through the Islamic world a resounding message in favor of freedom of choice and against the kind of dictatorship symbolized by Saddam Hussein.
"Eventually," said Bush in his second inaugural address, "the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul." It certainly seems to be stirring.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.