PARIS -- "How did he ever get to be president?" asked a French reporter watching George W. Bush in a joint press conference with the president of France, Jacques Chirac, in the splendor of the Elysee Palace last week.
"Just like that," was the appropriate answer from an American reporter. At the end of his first trip to the major capitals of old Europe, Bush was obviously exhausted and perhaps confused, too. "That's the fraternity boy we covered in the 2000 campaign," said the American reporter. Bush was slow, forgetful, smirky and downright nasty -- as he often was as a candidate. It was as if Sept. 11, 2001, and all the wars since had never happened.
Chirac was amused, at least on the surface. When Bush could not put together an answer to a complicated question, the Texan, as they like to call him here, smiled and said: "That's what happens when you're over 55." He turned to Chirac and said, "You know what I mean?" This time Chirac, who is 69 years old, did not seem amused at all.
Then David Gregory of NBC News, who speaks French, asked a question of Bush in English and added that he would like "Monsieur le President Chirac ..." to answer as well.
For some reason, that made Bush mad, and he said, more or less to Chirac, who spoke in French but understands English: "The guy memorizes four words, and he plays like he's intercontinental! ... Well, que bueno -- now I'm literate in two languages."
It turned out that what set him off was Gregory's turning to the French leader. Later Bush told Chirac: "I'll call on the Americans."
What Gregory said later was: "Well, that's it for my career."
The American president seemed most effective in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin, who made his career in the KGB, started off by saying that Bush's father was a spy, too. Bush tried to get across the point that his father, George H.W. Bush, was director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a political appointee. Putin didn't seem to see a difference. Actually what went wrong with Bush's European adventure -- which included announcing a far-reaching but vague arms-destruction agreement with Putin -- was that the United States' traditional allies, at least in the Cold War, were beginning to think that the Americans were more interested in a new alliance with the Russians than the old ones with them.
The most shocking thing to many Europeans about the trip was that Bush chose not to make an issue of open Soviet aid to help Iran build a nuclear army. "Dumb Quixote" was the title of a cartoon in the Observer in London, showing Bush riding off on his old horse in the direction of Iraq, which they consider a far less powerful and dangerous country than Iran.
In Germany, where Bush was well received -- he won a standing ovation from the German Parliament -- the head of the European Affairs Committee there, Friedbert Pfluger, still had this to say later: "All over Europe, people look at Bush and think, 'There's someone who just does what he wants, who talks about crusades and divides the world into good and evil. ... We're going to get drawn into something big and awful that's beyond our control."
Polls taken during his trip indicated that only one nation, Italy, has a positive impression of the president. The numbers there were 46 percent favorable and 26 percent unfavorable. In Germany, only 19 percent of respondents had a favorable view of their visitor from Washington, even though the German government is supplying troops and equipment to the American effort against terrorism in Afghanistan.
Numbers like that may be enough to produce the obvious (and contemptuous) unilateralism of Bush and his people. The trip was not the success Bush's advisers expected. Maybe that is because he, or they, really don't like or respect most European countries or their governments. Or, more likely, the president simply needs more fundamental information about the world -- and more naps.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600