George W. Bush is hungry to make a good impression this week on his first presidential tour of Europe, and no wonder. "This is the biggest trip of his life," an adviser says, his chance to look a Russian President in the eye, his chance to persuade the allies that he isn't the arrogant, missile shield-obsessed, execution-happy global warmer that so many Europeans take him to be.
How hungry is Bush? In late April, when former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who had suggested to the President's father that Dubya's foreign policy was off course, stopped at the White House to meet with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, the President dropped by for two minutes--and stayed for 20, pumping Gorby for advice. Bush has also heard from another old hand, the one whom Americans hope he consults but whom White House image-mongers are most sensitive about--his dad.
As the three generations of Bushes gathered at Camp David last week, the conversation turned to Dubya's five-day, five-country tour, which will culminate in a face-to-face session with Russian President Vladimir Putin Saturday in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The father, says a source close to the former President, has been thinking back on his own maiden voyage to Europe as President in May 1989--and recalling how valuable intelligence can be before a summit. "The old man had been getting signals from people in Europe," the source says, and gave his son "a little dose of realism" about the continental mood. But Bush already knew trouble awaited him, so he held a secret prep session on May 31 in the Yellow Oval Room, upstairs at the White House, and invited specialists from across the political spectrum. Sure, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Rice were there, along with a host of lesser Bushies. But none of them did the talking. Instead, five outsiders briefed the President, among them Michael McFaul, a Democrat and a Russia expert and Rice colleague from Stanford; Tom Graham, a Republican think-tanker; and Felix Rohatyn, the New York investment banker who was Clinton's ambassador to France. The surprising cast included two Brits--Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, and the left-leaning Oxford scholar Timothy Garton Ash. For 2 1/2 hours Bush listened and asked questions. "He hasn't thought a lot about these issues before," says someone who was there, "so he's taking this very seriously."
To ease Bush into the first challenging diplomatic mission of his career, his advisers have made sure his first stop will be Spain. Why? Because Spain is a bridge to Latin America, a part of the world Bush knows reasonably well. He'll pay his respects to the King and Queen (Juan Carlos is an old friend of Dad's), spend a few hours at the Prime Minister's country retreat and then get some down time in Madrid. "A good warmup," admits a pleased senior Administration official. Then things get real. "The next day it's over to Brussels," the official says, a tinge of worry in his voice. "That's the first rough day of sitting around with men in suits."