Is there such a thing as trust at first sight?

Thursday, July 5, 2001 at 1:00am

George W. Bush is back from Slovenia with a red-hot scouting report about Russian President Vladimir Putin: "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul."

Such powers of observation deserve our attention. George Reeves, the first Superman, could see whether a bad guy was hiding a gun under his coat. George W. Bush can see clear into a Russian ex-spymaster's "soul."

"It sure is a load off my mind," a reader e-mailed me upon hearing the president's report. "Bush has the ability to look into a person's eyes and see his soul - and know he can trust him! We should have him look into the eyes of everyone in the CIA. We wouldn't have any more of those nasty spies!"

Excellent point.

Consider the current case of Robert Philip Hanssen. A 25-year FBI veteran now negotiating for his life, Hanssen is charged with spying for the Russians the last 15 years with the Bureau. He decided on that joint career, he told his Russian handlers, when he was 14.

Who would have known? This guy fit the profile of gung-ho good guy. He began his career with the Chicago police, digging into corruption cases. He attended Catholic Mass each Sunday and went to anti-abortion rallies.

Yet, it turns out Hanssen had not just sold out to the Soviet enemy, he had been proactive in striking the deal. They didn't come to him, as is usually the case. He went to them.

And in all those years, no one caught "a sense of his soul."

There he was, raging against "godless" communism on weekdays, sitting in St. Catherine of Siena's on Sundays, his mind dancing with a real-life fantasy: He, Robert Hanssen, was a double agent selling out his country.

Too bad we didn't have President Bush around to look this character in the eye and tell us Hanssen was secretly risking all to screw his own country.

For that matter, too bad Mount Holyoke College didn't have President Bush on its faculty screening committee a few semesters back. He could have ferreted out history professors who jazz up their courses on the Vietnam War by claiming to have been in it.

The stakes are higher with Putin. What if the shrewd Russian leader cuts a deal with China on Taiwan? What if he secretly underwrites the trade of missile technology with Iran? What if he colludes with the Western European left on SDI?

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had to deal with a tougher Russian, said that the solution to the perennial Russian "enigma" lies in looking clearly and ruthlessly to that country's interests.

If that was true for Joseph Stalin, it's true for Putin. Bush should focus less on figuring out Putin and more on charting what any Russian would have to do in the face of the American superpower.

The needs of Russia are clear: dignity, which Bush provided; security, which Bush must be careful not to threaten with either SDI or NATO expansion; and hope, which an American president is uniquely equipped to provide.

Those interests - not the quality of Putin's eye contact - offer the best road map to the U.S.-Russian connection.

As my brilliant e-mailer suggested, and as former President Ronald Reagan insisted upon: Mr. Bush, trust, but verify!

Chris Matthews, a nationally syndicated columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle, is host of Hardball on CNBC and MSNBC cable channels.

Filed under: City News