That was shortly after Bush famously said he had glimpsed Putin's soul and felt that he and the Russian leader had a bond of trust. And it was before the Iraq War, which Putin opposed, and before Putin compared U.S. foreign policy to Nazi Germany's.
The missile defense system never materialized.
A few days ago, the two leaders had another go at it, meeting this time in Kennebunkport, Maine, at the Bush family compound, where they zoomed around in a speedboat with the elder President Bush. They also fished, played fetch with their dogs -- Putin brought along his Labrador -- and scooted around on Segway transporters.There's no rule requiring that world leaders do guy things while ironing out issues -- nor any guarantee of outcome -- but it is a fact that men communicate best while engaged in nonthreatening activities, especially on neutral turf.
Out on the open range or at sea, the mind expands and the heart relents.
On the other hand, as America considers a woman president, perhaps good ol' boy conclaves create a false sense of bonding as men project imagined camaraderie over convivial pursuits. Bush's Texas truckin' diplomacy did not, in fact, do much good despite photos that showed him and Putin grinning like two Cheshires at a cheese factory.
Bush seemed to be having such a good time with Vlad riding shotgun that he may have missed the former KGB officer's subterranean animus toward the U.S.
If two men in a truck couldn't resolve differences, could three in a speedboat do better?
Speaking to reporters in Maine, Putin said, "The deck has been dealt, and we are here to play. And I would very much hope that we are playing one and the same game."
About their meeting, Bush said: "Do I trust him? Yes, I trust him. Do I like everything he says? No. And I suspect he doesn't like everything I say. But we're able to say it in a way that shows mutual respect."
They seemed ready to cooperate, in other words, but they've seemed that way before. One possible difference this time is that the two men may have recognized a common and more urgent challenge than before. Nothing like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to force clarity and perspective.
We know that Bush and Putin spent one-on-one time together and that they discussed Iran. One hopes that when the two men peered into each others' eyes, they said something like:
"Look, buddy, I don't like you much and you don't like me, but Ahmadinejad is a problem. Let's sort this thing out."