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    An upclose impression of president

    By ANDREW BARNES, Times Chairman
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 11, 2002

    President George W. Bush's White House is punctual. We, a group of a dozen newspaper and broadcast executives, had been invited for 10 o'clock. At just 10 o'clock we found ourselves seated around the table in the Roosevelt Room. Security, by the way, was no more tight than in the airport, though of course our names had been cleared in advance.

    Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, would be in momentarily. She was meeting with the president. Two chairs had been left vacant, one for Dr. Rice, one in case President Bush decided to "drop in."

    We were all there as participants in a joint program with Russian media, initiated by Dr. Rice, with the purpose of helping wean Russian newspapers and television stations away from state support and state control. We had spent a week in Moscow in late May, meeting with our Russian counterparts, offering advice on how to make their newspapers into private, profitable businesses.

    No sooner had she started to praise us for pitching in on the project, which seems to have had a successful beginning, when we heard someone trying to open the door that leads to the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room. An aide leapt to open it, and in swept President Bush, closely followed by a photographer.

    He moved around the table, shaking hands and saying a few words to each of us, being photographed, then sat in the empty chair and voiced his own praise for the project. The praise was rather greater than I think the project so far warrants, but it was good to hear.

    The president's demeanor and appearance up close were not what I anticipated. His face was relaxed and receptive. He was articulate and informed about our project. There was none of the misuse of words or the twisted facial expression that sometimes comes through the television screen. He thanked us for pitching in when asked, in "the good American way."

    He stayed for a good half-hour, asking for more detail on what the hurdles are for the Russian media, offering to call or write Russian President Vladimir Putin if it would be useful as the project develops. Putin has spoken about Russia's need for independent media, and people who track these things more closely than I do are of the opinion that if he is re-elected in two years he will take it as a mandate to privatize the media and change the tax structure so that modern printing presses can be imported.

    The state still owns 70 percent of the presses in Russia, and subsidizes the huge majority of publications. It would be hard to criticize the state that owns your press and pays your bills. At one point President Bush said he had urged President Putin to tolerate a dissident press. I am paraphrasing from memory, but he said he had told Putin, "Everyday the New York Times says something that gets me steamed, but I don't want to shut them down."

    Seeing President Bush relaxed and almost informal made me more aware, not less, of the incredible power of his office.

    At one point a large fly flew in front of President Bush's face. He grimaced, said they haven't been able to get rid of them, brushed aside a remark that it must have been a holdover from the Clinton administration, and assured us it was "a bug, not a bug."

    After the conversation had been allowed to go on, media executives being far more polite and less probing than reporters, the president announced that he was on his way to go fishing with his father (this was on Friday, 10 days ago, as he began a vacation). He stood, smiled, waved, and was gone.

    I tell you all this for two reasons. First, I was struck how easy and relaxed a visit to the president could seem once they had decided they wanted to let you in.

    The second reason is particularly important for a newspaper like this one whose editorial policy profoundly disagrees with President Bush on several pressing world topics. Cartoons and late-night comics to the contrary notwithstanding, President Bush spoke persuasively and well. He was current on a wide range of topics. I judge the behind-the-hand questions about whether he is bright to be silly.

    We will continue to assert our contrary views, when we hold them, with as much force as possible. Indeed the accelerating drumbeat for war in Iraq will be such a topic, among quite a few. But I left my visit to the president's house more determined than ever that our disagreement must never edge over into disrespect.

    -- Andrew Barnes is chairman and chief executive officer of the St. Petersburg Times.

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