"You are a sailor," Mikhail Gorbachev said in a friendly aside to George Bush as they began their discussion of German unification in the White House last week. "You will understand that if one anchor is good, two anchors are better."

The Soviet leader then launched into a long and rambling argument that a unified Germany should belong simultaneously to the Warsaw Pact and NATO. But it was the imaged introduction about anchors, and Bush's response, that captured for some of the American and Soviet officials in the room the chemistry of the still evolving relationship between the two leaders that has made this meeting a summit with a difference.

Bush's response was a firm rejection. But the president was careful to explain his reasoning in full and friendly fashion, beginning by saying that it was precisely because he did not understand "how two anchors could work" that he wanted to persuade Gorbachev that German membership in NATO alone was a better idea.

"When people read the record of the conversations of the Washington summit in the future, they will see that they were quite different than previous talks between Soviet and American leaders," said one senior administration official yesterday on the basis of detailed briefings on the White House conversations.

"These two men now know that in a long-term relationship they can make their countries cooperative partners instead of hostile enemies, if they can manage German unification and agree on what the future of Europe should be," the official added. "By the time George Bush leaves the White House, he could be dealing with the Soviet president as he would {with} a friendly West European nation."

Bush and Gorbachev reached no agreement on Germany in their two days of White House talks. Yesterday, during more relaxed meetings at Camp David, German unification was again discussed, but Bush on his return to Washington last night merely said the two leaders had exchanged views on the subject. Their earlier conversations had established this as the most important question and area of differences on their agenda.

Bush reportedly was not discouraged over the impasse on the German issue, which U.S. officials said would continue to dominate superpower relations for months to come as Bush attempts to persuade Gorbachev that U.S.-Soviet cooperation is both possible and vital in managing security issues arising out of unification.

But U.S. officials emerged from the White House talks without a clear sense of the priority that Gorbachev really places on the German issue as he confronts deepening economic problems and growing political challenges at home.

The Soviet president was noticeably distracted during the conversations and not as well prepared for them as he was for his meeting with Bush in Malta or in his summits with former president Ronald Reagan, according to one summit participant.

"He was still as confident and dynamic as ever," this source said, "but he did not display the grasp of detail and of the general subjects that we have come to expect. And there seemed to be a large gap between the political level and the advisers in the Soviet delegation."

The political level -- essentially Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze -- repeatedly voiced flexibility and eagerness to push ahead in the Vienna talks on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE). They surprised the Americans, for example, by accepting with little discussion a U.S. proposal to condition the holding of the 35-nation pan-European summit Gorbachev has proposed on a successful conclusion of the CFE talks in Viennna.

But the Soviet Foreign and Defense Ministry officials on the delegation emphasized problems rather than possibilities when they spoke to their American counterparts. At one meeting of the delegations, Gorbachev appeared to react with surprise when a Soviet official outlined Moscow's toughened, negative stance on the U.S. "Open Skies" proposal that both military blocs conduct mutual aerial reconnaissance.

In the 2 1/2 hours of White House discussions devoted to Germany and European security issues, Gorbachev did not advance beyond his proposal for German membership in both alliances, repeating his reference to two anchors several times and asking Bush to understand the difficult political problems that unification poses for the Soviet people.

He did not raise the idea that Moscow might accept a unified Germany joining the political arm of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as long as the Germans stayed out of the alliance's integrated military command -- "the French model" of NATO membership that Gorbachev referred to in a Moscow press conference on May 25. Nor did he seek assurances that special limitations would apply to the size of a united Germany's armed forces.

The U.S. delegation had been prepared to reject both ideas but saw no point in raising them when Gorbachev did not. U.S. officials were also struck that Gorbachev did not repeat in the White House talks the irritable, defiant warnings against any Western attempts to "dictate" to the Soviet Union that he made in a press conference in Ottawa on Wednesday, just before he flew to Washington.

The friendly, at times joking manner Gorbachev and Shevardnadze adopted in their private Washington talks contrasted sharply with the Ottawa performance. At the end of Friday's formal signing of U.S.-Soviet agreements, Shevardnadze walked past a group of U.S. officials and told them to read again the text of a minor accord on maritime activities.

"Now that it is signed," the Soviet diplomat said, "you should know that it cuts both our navies by 50 percent." The American group joined his hearty laughter a moment later.