RATING THE ROADSHOW

It was meant to be a heart-to-heart: just the two presidents and their translators, sitting alone inside the historic castle that overlooks the Slovak capital of Bratislava. Four years earlier, in another castle in Central Europe, George W. Bush looked Vladimir Putin in the eye and saw his trustworthy soul. But what he saw inside Putin last week was far less comforting. When Bush confronted his Russian counterpart about the freedom of the press in Russia, Putin shot back with an attack of his own: "We didn't criticize you when you fired those reporters at CBS."

It's not clear how well Putin understands the controversy that led to the dismissal of four CBS journalists over the discredited report on Bush's National Guard service. Yet it's all too clear how Putin sees the relationship between Bush and the American media--just like his own. Bush's aides have long feared that former KGB officers in Putin's inner circle are painting a twisted picture of U.S. policy. So Bush explained how he had no power to fire American journalists. It made little difference. When the two presidents emerged for their joint press conference, one Russian reporter repeated Putin's language about journalists getting fired. Bush (already hot after an earlier question about his spying on U.S. citizens) asked the reporter if he felt free. "They obviously planted the question," said one of Bush's senior aides.

That was a rare cold front in what was otherwise a warming trend on Bush's first overseas travel of his second term. It was intended to be a charm offensive designed to bury the rancor over Iraq. Bush had tried and failed to do something similar last year, but Europe's leaders were waiting to see how the war would turn out--and whether John Kerry would oust him from the White House. This time Bush's diplomacy worked. Part of it was symbolic: the Euros loved the sight of an American president paying his respects at the European Union's headquarters in Brussels. Part of it was stylistic: Bush took the time to listen to his allies and promised to think about their advice. But there wasn't much substance behind the warm glow: the White House refused to join Europe's nuclear talks with Iran, and it flatly opposed Europe's lifting its ban on arms sales to China.

For a moment it looked as though the kinder, gentler Bush could win over what the tabloids used to call the axis of weasel. Over dinner with France's Jacques Chirac at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, the two presidents bonded on the need for Syria to leave Lebanon. They even issued an agreement that was proposed only three days earlier--a warplike speed in the world of diplomacy. "When we and the French are on the same wavelength, there's no one better," said one senior White House aide. "They are terrific." To the French, Bush succeeded by avoiding the issues that clearly divide them. The leaders spent just one minute talking about Iraq, and never touched on Bush's signature policy of spreading democracy through the Middle East.

It was more of the same in Germany. Bush emerged from his talks with Gerhard Schroder with a special agreement on climate change and renewable energy--two subjects that Bush rarely mentioned in his first term. White House officials were even ready to forgive Schroder for recently suggesting that NATO was no longer the best place to coordinate transatlantic strategy. "It was just badly expressed," said one Bush aide.

There were no such excuses for Putin. Bush may have thawed the chill in Old Europe, but he failed to sell his Inaugural vision of democracy to a man he once called "one of my good friends." In little more than two months, Bush will travel to Moscow to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. It might just be his last chance to persuade his soulmate in the Kremlin to come in from the cold.