Bush's Bull Session: Loud And Clear, Chief

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG, July 17 -- President Bush should know that in Russia, someone is always listening. In this case, it was the rest of the world.

It did not take a KGB bug to overhear the leader of the free world carp about long-winded counterparts, grumble about the U.N. secretary general and cuss out the rocket-launching radicals in the Middle East. It only took an open microphone -- one the president clearly didn't know about -- at the closing lunch of the Group of Eight summit that ended here on Monday.

"What they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over," an irritated Bush said with his mouth full as he buttered a piece of bread.

"Who, Syria?" asked British Prime Minister Tony Blair, standing next to the seated Bush.

"Right," Bush said.

Right, indeed. It was the sort of moment that gets technicians fired but offers the world a rare glimpse of a president unplugged. After days of polite diplo-speak, reading from talking points and sticking to the script, here was the unguarded Bush, the impatient Bush, the small-talking Bush marveling at how long it takes to fly around the world and asking the waiter to make sure his Coke was diet.

And at the same time that the gaffe peeled back the curtain on Bush just a bit, it also punctured the White House line that all the leaders here at the summit shared the same view of the Middle East, a line that was never all that convincing in the first place. As he chatted with Blair, Bush expressed pique at U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan for pushing a cease-fire that the president believes would not be meaningful unless it was preceded by significant concessions by Hezbollah and Hamas.

"What about Kofi?" Bush said. "That seems odd. I don't like the sequence of it. His attitude is basically cease-fire and [only then] everything else happens."

Of course, only the night before, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns was claiming to reporters here that "there was no push for a cease-fire this weekend."

There was certainly push- back. Bush seemed exasperated that Annan was not pressuring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to rein in Hezbollah. "I felt like telling Kofi to get on the phone with Assad and make something happen," he told Blair.

So much for summit harmony. Politicians know better than anyone just how dangerous a microphone can be. Ronald Reagan announced the bombing of the Soviet Union over a hot mike. Bob Kerrey told a lesbian joke. Bill Clinton chewed out a hapless aide.

Bush has been on the wrong end of this before as well. During a campaign event in 2000, Bush forgot his mike as he pointed out a reporter in the crowd to Dick Cheney and called the journalist a "major-league . . ." well, jerk. Cheney concurred: "Big-time."

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