Charmed, I'm Sure

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RAY STUBBLEBINE / REUTERS

President Bush addresses delegates at the start of the 2005 World Summit and 60th General Assembly of the United Nations, in New York

President Bush, sitting chair by chair with President Hu Jintao of China on Tuesday before a United Nations summit in Manhattan, broke the silence as aides herded out the last of the journalists who had been brought in to record the leaders' pre-meeting pleasantries. Bush and Hu were in a cramped Waldorf Astoria suite that was blazing with studio lighting installed by the White House. "All right!" Bush told the translators and underlings with a sly smile. "Now we can get some oxygen in this room."

The summit, which marks the 60th anniversary of the United Nations and was billed as the "largest-ever gathering of world leaders," gave Bush some breathing room—a chance to escape minute-by-minute scrutiny over the federal handling of Hurricane Katrina for the first time in two weeks. An international meeting, usually one of the presidential duties that Bush enjoys least, suddenly looked like a respite.

The president and his first lady, Laura Bush, threw a reception for world leaders in the hotel's "Starlight Roof" ballroom, complete with an orchestra, servers in toques, votive candles in the elevator lobby and signs—reminiscent of a campaign fund-raiser—directing guests to the "Photo-Op/Receiving Line." On Wednesday morning, Bush addressed delegates, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, in the massive General Assembly Hall, where he was introduced as "His Excellency." Although providing Bush with an annual opportunity to be Mr. Multilateralist, these occasions must be about as comfortable for him as walking to the rostrum of the Democratic National Convention. There are none of the interruptions for applause that are a staple of Bush events—just the rustling of papers and adjusting of headphones, with golf claps at the end.

Bush thanked his fellow heads of state for the recovery assistance they had offered New Orleans, some of which the United States did not rush to accept. "Your response, like the response to last year's tsunami, has shown once again that the world is more compassionate and hopeful when we act together," he said. Bush used the word "freedom" 13 times in 25 minutes, saying, "Across the world, hearts and minds are opening to the message of human liberty as never before." He announced an International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza, which requires participating nations to immediately share information when facing an outbreak, and to provide samples to the World Health Organization. And yet still, the audience response was skeptical and hostile.

Turning to trade, he pledged, "The United States is ready to eliminate all tariffs, subsidies and other barriers to free flow of goods and services as other nations do the same." The president rewarded Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with a meeting and photo opportunity after his completion of the withdrawal of settlers from the Gaza Strip to make way for Palestinians. Bush said he was inspired by his ally's "courageous decision to give peace a chance."

As leaders greeted each other before a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Bush dispensed handshakes, back pats and even a hug or two. But there was a visible reminder of the tensions between the United States and the world body: John R. Bolton, the biting critic of Turtle Bay bureaucracy who was installed by Bush as his U.N. ambassador during the congressional recess after the Senate did not act to confirm him, took a seat behind the president.

Police closed all of East 50th Street from Park Avenue to Lexington Avenue as an overnight parking lot for the presidential motorcade, which took up both sides of the street. The United Nations had tried to make New Yorkers feel better about the gridlock and street closures with an "Everyone Is A Delegate" advertising campaign on subways, buses and telephone kiosks. Roads were clogged with Denalis, Town Cars and Mercedes with window signs like "Malaysia 11," "Togo 3" and the Saudi Arabian "Royal Protocol 2."

The administration's high-profile diplomacy will continue later this month when Karen Hughes, who became "Ambassador Hughes" when she was sworn in Friday as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, takes her staff and five networks on a week-long "listening tour" of four cities in the Middle East and Europe. Officials tell TIME that Hughes will bring along "citizen ambassadors," including a representative of the education community, as she meets with foreign officials, academics and students to talk about reasons for the problems with the nation's image, and to get ideas for improving it. Hughes flew to New York with Bush on Air Force One and is staying behind to meet with ambassadors and foreign ministers.

Bush toggled between diplomacy and the Katrina disaster all week. Heading into his address to the nation in Louisiana on Thursday night, he hoped to close the books on the original debacle so he could pivot toward a more optimistic and unifying message. So on Tuesday, he used the somewhat incongruous setting off an East Room news conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to issue what was known in the Nixon years as a "modified limited hangout."

"Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government," he said Tuesday in the East Room of the White House. "And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility. I want to know what went right and what went wrong." However qualified or reluctant, the declaration won him credit on newscasts and in newspapers for showing leadership and taking responsibility.

The bayou blunders also intruded on a pre-summit visit Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid to Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times, and his "publishers luncheon." She was asked about the possibility that Katrina had fueled perceptions "that George Bush doesn't care about black people." Rice said it was "poisonous" for someone to suggest that the president would decide who ought to be helped on the basis of color. "You know the phrase that actually attracted me to him more than anything else didn't have anything to do with foreign policy—it was actually ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations,'" she said, referring to his campaign phrase for underestimating minority pupils. "I had a high school teacher who told me that maybe I was junior college material. So I know about the soft bigotry of low expectations, and it's not in this president."

A transcript released by the State Department showed that one of the Times officials then drew laughter by saying: "At the risk of turning a lunch with the Secretary of State to foreign policy..."