HELSINKI, Finland -- Midway through their joint news conference on the flower-bedecked stage of Finlandia Hall, a question about increasing U.S.-Soviet friendship produced an unexpected Alphonse-Gaston display of deference on the part of George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev.
For a moment, each sought to yield to the other.
But their answers, as well as almost every other aspect of their third summit in less than 10 months, underscored the extent to which the world's one-time leading superpowerrivals have embraced each other to become the globe's newest best friends.
"Clearly, there has been ... a developing mutual understanding over the years," Mr. Bush said yesterday. "If this had occurred 20 years ago, there wouldn't have been this cooperative feeling.
"Differences still remain. But thecommon ground, in my view at least, surges ahead of these difficulties."
Mr. Gorbachev noted that at each such meeting, "we enrich our relationship," adding, "if trust is engendered between the leaders of two such nations during meetings of this kind ... that is for the good of all of us."
Both men credited their growing relationship to their ability, in previous meetings in Malta and at Camp David, Md., to sit down as they did yesterday morning, without advisers, and discuss the problems of the world.
Without those meetings, Mr. Gorbachev said, "we would now be in a different situation facing the crisis in the Persian Gulf."
And the increasingly warm relationship between the two men was evident in the personal touches that marked their only public appearance, yesterday afternoon's newsconference, in the building best known for the 1975 conference that called for the end to a divided Europe that now seems to be taking place.
When Mr. Bush's microphone failed at one point during his news conference with Mr. Gorbachev, he gave it a jab to jar it back to life.
"Hit it again," Mr. Gorbachev advised Mr. Bush, illustrating his Russian with a karate chop in the air.
When his own microphone faltered, the Soviet leader looked over slyly at the American president. "Should I hit it again?" he asked, as the two men grinned at each other in an uncommonly warm and fuzzy way.
As Mr. Bush noted, differences remain. But the president suggested that a major measure of the developing relationship was, in effect, their ability to disagree without being disagreeable.
"Neither of us when we talk try to hide our differences," he said. "Neither of us try to indicate that we lookat exactly every problem exactly the same way. But the very fact that we can talk with that degree of frankness without rancor, I think, enhances mutual understanding."
As the session continued, differences were evident on such issues as the eventual use of force to resolve the gulf crisis, the withdrawal of Soviet advisers from Iraq and various aspects of their overall approaches to the Middle East.
But both went out of their way to play down those differences, such as when Mr. Bush said that although he believed withdrawal of Soviet advisers from Iraq "would facilitate things," their presence was "not a major irritant."
Mr. Gorbachev, who always seems buoyed by summitry no matter how abysmal his domestic problems, showed up yesterday morning for his meeting with Mr. Bush with a humorous gift. It was a cartoon, about 11 inches by 14, intended to underscore the leaders' new relationship as partners, rather than adversaries.
The cartoon depicted Mr. Bush and Mr. Gorbachev dressed as boxers, with a referee in the middle whose head was a globe. The referee was holding up each man's arm in the victory stance, and at their feet lay a melting and vanquished figure labeled "Cold War" in Russian. The caption for the cartoon, also in Russian, was "Knockout."
A Soviet official explained that the picture was meant to signify that "both presidents win -- nobody loses."
Mr. Bush laughed when he saw the picture and exclaimed, "That's wonderful!"
But he still prefers to talk about the post-postwar world, rather than the post-Cold War world, as if he still can't really believe that this new friendship is for real.