In the Oval Office last week, George W. Bush was explaining his theory on growing a democracy to Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif. "It's the evolution of a baby," Bush said, according to a senior aide who was present but declined to be named because the meeting was private. "First you crawl, then you walk, then you sprint. Sometimes people want to go straight to sprinting." That evening, at a foreign-policy dinner, Bush counseled patience, especially in the newly free countries of the Middle East and former Soviet Union. He also spelled out details of a new office for reconstruction and emphasized his commitment to nation-building.

With this more nurturing approach, Bush is trying to flesh out the lofty rhetoric of his second Inaugural Address, in which he pledged to spread liberty and end tyranny. The aide says the president wants to show he can be a realist--as well as an idealist. "It's a systematic effort to show it's not a simplistic foreign policy," the aide says. "It's not just a shoot-from-the-hip, idealistic thing." In other words, last week's speech, like his Inaugural, was the stuff legacies are built on--a subject Bush and his aides are reluctant to talk about openly. As he prepares for Middle East peacemaking--the Palestinian president will visit the White House for the first time this week--Bush is trying to lower expectations while he keeps his eyes on the prize.