West Wing Story: Down-Home Diplomacy

Even before President Putin arrived in Texas on Wednesday afternoon, George W. Bush was extolling his beloved home state. Bush gave his Russian counterpart an impromptu art tour of the Oval Office, pointing out the various landscape paintings he personally picked out to remind him of home. There was a landscape of Central Texas, East Texas and, of course, Bush's own West Texas. To some, they might all look roughly the same--arid earth and big sky. But to Bush, they each offer a different perspective. To Putin, the paintings lacked one key ingredient that makes Texas Texas. "Where are the Texas people?" Putin asked, a Texas sized smile on his face. "I'm a Texas person," Bush replied.

In this era of identity politics, Bush is most definitely a Person of Texas. He waxes about Texas the way immigrants talk about their native lands. "It's important for [Putin] to see the fairest state of all 50," Bush told reporters upon landing in Texas yesterday. The president had not been back to his Crawford ranch since the terrorist attack. "The best diplomacy starts with getting to know each other, and I want him to get to know my values," Bush said.

Bush has grown more fond of Washington, or at least of Camp David, where he has been forced to spend more of his weekends since the attacks. He and his family will spend Thanksgiving there, for example. Tuesday, he took Putin out on the Truman Balcony at the White House and pointed out the Jefferson and Washington memorials. But it is the sights of Crawford that he wants to show off to the Russian leader because he thinks they are every bit as representative of America as D.C.'s monuments.

Crawford--hospitable, homespun and hawkish--was more than happy to oblige the president. The Red Bull antique store in downtown was one of several stores that dressed up for the bilateral visit. The owner had made U.S. and Russian flags out of picket-fence wood and stuck them in a planter outside the shop. The Waco Tribune-Herald editors welcomed President Putin with a letter saying "We're just pleased as pie that you've trekked the globe from Russia and ended up in little old Crawford." They also offered him a quick culture lesson. "If you've got to skip a talk on nuclear warheads to catch a high school football game, speak up! They'll understand."

Putin has less than 24 hours to get a feel for Texans. Anthony Eiland, who has been selling T shirts on Crawford's Main Street (yes, it's called Main Street, and it means it), might be a good, quick case study. He's entrepreneurial, using the occasion of the visit to sell his wares (a shirt with a picture of U.S. bomber letting loose over Afghanistan) for $15 apiece. And unlike pundits back in D.C. ("snobby Washington types," as the Waco Herald-Tribune calls us), Eiland thinks Bush should talk more and not less like a gun-slinging cowboy. He too wants Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," as Bush once said, before being chastised. Eiland even painted a large picture of OBL as a backdrop to his T-shirt stand. It reads WANTED. It's a sentiment Putin shares.

The Bushes are going to do their part of give Putin a taste of Texas tonight. They are going to put a chuck wagon out on the lawn (barring rain) at the Prairie Chapel Ranch and have cowboys cooking their meal out there. It will be beef, of course, but mesquite-smoked peppered tenderloin (a bit pricier cut than most in Crawford probably eat regularly). The ranch is studded with pecan trees, but the pecan pie will be catered, not from scratch. Laura Bush joked last week at the National Press Club that "I haven't had to cook in a few years. It's been a great relief for my family." They've invited a few Texas luminaries, like Bush's buddy Ben Crenshaw, the golfer. And there will be a five-piece Texas swing band that will play Western songs like "Drifting Along with the Tumbling Tumbleweeds."

All of this may seem silly given the gravity of the news these days, but for Bush's style of diplomacy, it is crucial. Like his father, Bush believes that personal relationships are the way to do international business. Putin will be the first foreign leader to break bread with the president at his home. In Bush's mind, his word is much more important than written words. He eschews treaties and is even hesitant to codify the nuclear warhead cuts he and Putin agreed to yesterday. "I've announced a level that ... we'll stick by. To me, that's how you approach a relationship that is changed and different," Bush told a reporter who asked about putting the agreement on paper. "I looked the man in the eye and shook his hand."

Bush had been ridiculed for his gut-check diplomacy. But so far, it's been working for him. Putin's intelligence and collaboration on Afghanistan have been vital in the war. "You're the kind of guy I like to have in a foxhole with me," Bush told Putin back in Washington. Whether a downhome hoe-down will convince Putin to come through on changes Bush wants to the ABM Treaty remains to be seen. We're still getting to know Putin, and he us.

When Putin leaves Crawford on Thursday, he'll make another American pilgrimage--to New York City. Ground Zero has become a kind of mecca for politicians. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was there today. Last weekend, we visited the site with President Bush. That acrid smell stayed in my hair and my skin tingled for hours. Bush told Mayor Rudy Giuliani that there was a new household name in Crawford, "Rudy." After tomorrow, will "Vladimir" roll off the tongue like Jim or Bob or Jim Bob? Doubtful, but who would have ever thought that Crawford, Texas, would be on a first-name basis with a New York City mayor and a Russian president. Then again, no one thought Bush would turn out to be much of a diplomat either.