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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Helps Bush Get Into Gear for Photo Op

TBILISI, Georgia -- What with Air Force One, Marine One and the armor-plated limousine, U.S. President George W. Bush isn't often behind the wheel. Maybe that's why he found himself struggling to get President Vladimir Putin's gleaming 1956 ivory-colored Volga into gear at the Putin's dacha outside Moscow on Sunday night, in a mishap that was not caught in the pictures of the two waving merrily from the windows of the vintage sedan.

The Volga, recently purchased by Putin and so immaculately restored that it looked as if it belonged in a car museum, had been parked outside Putin's official meeting house on the dacha grounds as the two presidents held talks. Reporters were told that the two would emerge and drive the Volga the short distance to Putin's official residence, where the Bushes, the Putins and a few top aides were to have dinner.

When the presidents walked out after the meeting, Putin suddenly motioned for Bush to take the wheel, and Bush, surprised, did. But he soon got hung up by the car's manual steering column gearshift, and with a flummoxed but determined look on his face fought to get the car into first. Soon enough Putin leaned toward Bush, grabbed the shift and slammed it into gear. The car immediately took off, with no awful grinding gear sounds; Bush had evidently kept a good foot on the clutch.

The car made its way toward the dinner, and the news media began to leave. But a short time later, reporters turned around and were surprised to see the car lumbering back toward them through the birch forest, its headlights off in the gathering dusk, with Bush still at the wheel.

"I'm having so much fun we're going for another lap," Bush said, in a comment that must have been music to the ears of White House advisers who had been working overtime to promote the idea that Bush and Putin, who had engaged in a war of words about democracy and the history of World War II during Bush's five-day trip to Europe, were not actually at each other's throats.

Reporters in Rossiya

The Russians made the military parade on Monday celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Allied defeat of the Nazis off-limits to journalists, but state television had the run of Red Square. American photographers and television crews, who had traveled all the way to Russia only to spend the big day of Bush's trip watching the proceedings indoors on TV screens in the Rossiya Hotel, where the news media were captive, amused themselves by watching what they said was a Hollywood-on-the-Moscow-River production that out-glitzed any network news coverage in the United States.

The Russians had cameras mounted all over Red Square that caught Putin's celebration from every angle. Sky cameras on wires strung between giant cranes, like the kind used at American football games, caught the panorama of the proceedings from high above the Kremlin. A miniature camera mounted in the car of Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov captured his perspective as he stood ramrod straight in a moving convertible reviewing the troops, while a wireless microphone broadcast his every word.

Cameras were mounted in the cockpit and under one of the jets that streaked in formation over Red Square, so that viewers could see the crowd below and the plumes of red and blue smoke that shot out of the jet's tail into the sky.

The cameras also caught Bush in the seat of honor next to Putin, with President Jacques Chirac of France and Chancellor Gerhard Schroder of Germany close by. Later he could be seen talking happily with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, and greeting decorated Russian World War II veterans in a lunch at the Kremlin after the parade.

The cameras did not capture Bush anywhere near a dictator or former dictator, like General Wojciech Jaruzelski of Poland, who tried and failed to repress the Solidarity movement. Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who was recently warned by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice not to hold a "sham election" next year in what she has termed the last dictatorship of Europe, was in Moscow on Sunday but gone by Monday.

Freedom to Complain

Bush and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili found some common ground on Tuesday, when, at a joint news conference in the parliament building, Bush noted that Saakashvili had complained about his treatment by the Georgian press.

"Which is a good sign," Bush said. "It means you're free. I sometimes complain about ours, but not too publicly, of course."

Saakashvili, whose critics have accused the government of putting undue pressure on the news media, was not as restrained. When he was asked by American reporters about restrictions on the Georgian press, the question seemed to hit a nerve.

"You can go out and look at the television screen, and you would see how outspoken is the opposition and how much coverage they get," Saakashvili said. "I mean this country has seven independent television channels and 27 regional television stations, and I can tell you 95 percent of them are extremely negative on me. I don't know what you call 'not free' media. I mean it's one of the most vicious and free medias. I mean we were driving by and on this huge screen, which is like I don't know how many inches, there was a big guy, and my wife was like reacting to it, and she said, 'Who the hell is that?'"

Saakashvili chuckled. "That is one of the opposition leaders denouncing me," he said he told her.