CRAWFORD, Texas While President Bush failed to strike a missile-defense deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday, the two leaders exhibited a camaraderie that once seemed unimaginable to Americans who came of age during the Cold War.
“When I was in high school, Russia was an enemy,” Mr. Bush told students at Crawford High School during a joint appearance with Mr. Putin. “Now the high school students can know Russia as a friend.”
While Mr. Bush would have liked to convince Mr. Putin to scrap the ABM Treaty during their first American summit, he chose to look on the bright side of their relationship yesterday.
“The great thing about our relationship is [that] our relationship is strong enough to endure this difference of opinion,” said Mr. Bush.
If there was any doubt that Mr. Bush considers Mr. Putin a friend, it was put to rest yesterday during a remarkable hour in the school’s packed gymnasium.
As rain rattled on the metal roof and thunder boomed overhead, the two leaders seemed to delight in riffing off each other in roles that ranged from serious statesmen to Borscht-belt comedians.
“OK, the president and I have agreed to take a few questions from the students,” Mr. Bush began.
“No math questions, please,” Mr. Putin interjected through a translator, triggering laughter among the 1,000 students, parents and teachers.
“Good idea. Particularly no fuzzy math questions,” Mr. Bush retorted, referring to former Vice President Al Gore’s campaign critique of the Bush tax-cut plan.
The line brought down the house, but the George and Vlad stand-up act was just getting warmed up.
“I told him he was welcome to come back next August to get a true taste of Crawford,” said Mr. Bush. “He said: ‘Fine, and maybe you’d like to go to Siberia in the winter.’”
Not to be outdone, Mr. Putin gave a rare public glimpse of his humorous side.
“We in Russia have known for a long time that Texas is the most important state in the United States,” he said, shamelessly milking the crowd for applause.
“But seriously speaking, we in Russia somehow tend to know about Texas rather better than about the rest of the United States,” he added. “Except maybe for Alaska, which we sold to you.”
When a seventh-grade girl asked Mr. Bush if he would take along any Crawford children on a planned trip to Moscow next year, the president adopted a jokingly stern demeanor and said simply “no.” Mr. Putin seized on this opening to tease the American president.
“I am extremely grateful for this question,” Mr. Putin said playfully. He said he “would be glad to see any of you present here in Russia.”
He added: “At the count of three, those who want your president to come to Russia, raise your hands and say yes.”
Mr. Putin, in English, then counted “one, two” and the crowd roared back “yes.”
The White House made much of this banter between the two presidents, saying it will go a long way toward establishing a “new strategic framework” between two nations that were mortal adversaries for decades.
“I bet a lot of folks here, particularly the older folks, never dreamt that an American president would be bringing the Russian president to Crawford, Texas,” Mr. Bush marveled. “A lot of people never really dreamt that an American president and a Russian president could have established the friendship that we have.”
“Quite apart from the fact that these two men do like each other they have a similar sense of humor; they get along extremely well. The interests of Russia and the United States are moving in a common direction,” said National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. “And that’s really the very most important thing about this.”
While the two presidents hit it off in three earlier meetings in Europe, the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States have deepened their friendship. It has also diluted the significance of their disagreement over the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which now takes a back seat to more pressing issues like U.S.-Russian cooperation in the war against terrorism.
“Whatever we do to address our concerns about missile defense, this is in the context now of a substantially changed relationship from where we were several months ago,” said Miss Rice. “This is a smaller element of the U.S.-Russia relationship than it was several months ago, and certainly than it was before September 11th.”
After his first meeting with Mr. Putin in Europe, Mr. Bush was ridiculed in the press for saying that he had looked into the Russian’s eyes and taken a measure of the man’s soul. But such talk has now become common and is generally seen as proof of the deep bond between the two leaders.
Mr. Bush, who feted his Russian counterpart with an informal barbecue and led him on a rainy tour of his 1,600-acre ranch, repeatedly referred to Mr. Putin yesterday as simply “Vladimir.”
“You only usually invite your friends into your house,” said Mr. Bush. “Oh, occasionally you let a salesman in, or two.”