George Bush knew Vladimir Putin would be defensive when Bush brought up the pace of democratic reform in Russia in their private meeting at the end of Bush's four-day, three-city tour of Europe. But when Bush talked about the Kremlin's crackdown on the media and explained that democracies require a free press, the Russian leader gave a rebuttal that left the President nonplussed. If the press was so free in the U.S., Putin asked, then why had those reporters at CBS lost their jobs? Bush was openmouthed. "Putin thought we'd fired Dan Rather," says a senior Administration official. "It was like something out of 1984."
The Russians did not let the matter drop. Later, during the leaders' joint press conference, one of the questioners Putin called on asked Bush about the very same firings, a coincidence the White House assumed had been orchestrated. The odd episode reinforced the Administration's view that Putin's impressions of America are often based on urban myths fed to him by ill-informed aides. (At a past summit, according to Administration aides, Putin asked Bush whether it was true that chicken producers split their production into plants that serve the U.S. and lower-quality ones that process substandard chicken for Russia.) U.S. aides say that to help fight against this kind of misinformation, they are struggling to build relationships that go beyond Putin. "We need to go deeper into the well into other levels of government," explains an aide. --By John F. Dickerson