By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; C01
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."
As recently as February, Bush met with House Republicans at a resort on Maryland's Eastern Shore and swore them to secrecy. "First of all, I expect this conversation we're about to have to stay in the room," he lectured. "I know that's impossible in Washington." Particularly when you leave the microphone on and transmit back to the White House press room.
Bush had special reason to be wary here in Russia. Never mind that the Russians try to bug the White House staff. Twice in recent weeks a live microphone has broadcast private discussions about the summit, first at a meeting of G-8 finance ministers, then at a session between G-8 foreign ministers. The latter captured a heated argument between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over the text of a statement about Iraq. "If that's how Russia sees it, that's fine," Rice said testily.
Bush's own raw side came out as he and the other G-8 leaders were wolfing down their final meal together after three days of summiting. Official Russian television cameras were panning the room, but the microphones were supposed to be off. Instead, against the clatter of plates and the pouring of drinks, a snippet of the president's lunchtime discussion was broadcast on the official summit channel.
After five days traveling in Germany and Russia, Bush seemed tired of the proceedings. When someone, probably an aide, asked about final remarks, he turned down a text: "No. Just gonna make it up. I'm not going to talk too damn long like the rest of them. Some of these guys talk too long."
He seemed eager to leave: "Gotta go home. Got something to do tonight. Go to the airport, get on the airplane and go home."
Addressing one of the other leaders off camera, he asked how long it takes to get home. It was not clear whom he was talking with, but a good guess is Chinese President Hu Jintao, a guest at the summit.
"Eight hours?" Bush exclaimed. "Me too. Russia's a big country and you're a big country."
Struck by this, Bush then pointed it out to another unidentified leader. "It takes him eight hours to fly home. Eight hours. Russia's big and so is China."
At this point, Blair approached.
"Blair, what are you doing? You leaving?"
"No, no, no, not yet," Blair said.
The British prime minister had business to discuss and raised the subject of global trade talks, which have stalled to the frustration of both men. "It may be that it's impossible," Blair said.
Bush soon lost interest and thanked Blair for a gift, presumably for his recent 60th birthday.
"Thanks for the sweater. Awfully thoughtful of you," Bush said. Turning mischievous, he added, "I know you picked it out yourself."
"Oh, absolutely," Blair said as they both laughed.
Then Bush turned the discussion to Annan and the cease-fire issue. He told Blair he was sending Rice to the region. Blair offered to make a public statement of some kind to prepare the ground. "Obviously, if she goes out, she's got to succeed, as it were, whereas I can just go out and talk," he said.
That was when Bush complained about Hezbollah and groused about telling Annan to call Assad. Only then did Blair notice the microphone and snap it off.
The exchange with Blair, one of his closest allies, offered a peek into their relationship. Bush repeatedly interrupted or changed the subject, Blair at times stammered as he tried to make his points. Asked about it at a later news conference, Blair smiled and said it was actually "all about transparent government." White House press secretary Tony Snow said Bush "rolled his eyes and laughed" when he learned what happened.
Talking with reporters as Air Force One flew back to Washington, Snow said Bush owes Annan no explanation. "You get a slice of a conversation that was a carry-over from previous conversations and all the president was saying is that he wants to make sure that the sequencing is clear when it comes to action with regard to the situation in the Middle East."
As for the president's relationship with the secretary general, Snow said, "He likes Kofi Annan and he is not only happy to work with him, but has been supportive from the very start of the U.N. mission to the region."
Finally, Snow was asked if he had a comment "on the president's use of a word that some people might consider to be an expletive."
"Not unless you've never used it," Snow said.
"Damn," the reporter replied.