WASHINGTON — THROUGH AN area under curfew where 66 were arrested the night before; past boarded-up shops, recently looted, with shards of glass cluttering the sidewalk; into the very eye of defiance of authority I made my perilous way to breakfast with Vytautas Landsbergis, president of the Republic of Lithuania.
This was in Washington, D.C., of course, capital of the most stable government in the world. Did Landsbergis, who made his stand against Mikhail Gorbachev's black-bereted goons in Vilnius four months ago, feel at home?
"Certain similarities exist," he allowed, "but I feel at home in a different sense." Later, he said: "This is the home of freedom. Everybody seeking freedom looks to the U.S."
This modest patriot offers no bombast, no heroic poses; he believes the Baltics are of right independent and ought to be treated that way.
"But the Western democracies speak over our shoulders to the face behind us," he says. "They don't look us in the eye."
On Wednesday, in a significant symbolic act, President Bush looked the Balts in the eye, greeting the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the Oval Office.
No longer do we cling to the passive posture of not accepting the Hitler-Stalin conquest. We are step-by-stepping toward outright recognition of the captive states, which infuriates the leftover imperialists in Moscow.
In helping to move Baltic independence from de jure to de facto, Bush is executing the classic "pushmipullyu maneuver." This involves talking out of heads at both ends of the mythical animal.
Thus from the front head he loudly lauds the "enormous" accomplishments of Gorbachev, and flashes the signal that $1.5 billion of U.S. taxpayers' money is soon to go down the Soviet command-economy drain to appease the old apparatchiks.
Meanwhile, the back head of Bush is planning to name Robert Gates (who Gorbachev thinks is out to get him) as director of Central Intelligence. That back head also poses for a picture with the Baltic leaders, which helps weaken Moscow's grip on three captive nations.
As further evidence of his back head's iron resolve, Bush will send Curtis Kamman, a deputy assistant secretary of state (whose protocol seat at a diplomatic dinner is deep in the butlers' pantry) to the Baltic capitals to show the U.S. flag.
Is pushmipullyu diplomacy -- dazzlingly acting against our words -- the best way to achieve our ends? Oval officers love it because historians damnably praise feints. Sometimes two-facedness works, but most of the time it confuses everybody by muddying our purpose.
Landsbergis, with independence his fixed goal, would prefer us to use our credit guarantees to encourage companies to invest in his country, and to establish a Baltic development bank. Richard Nixon, returning from his Soviet tour, agreed: we should be helping the reforming hands in the republics, not pressing credits into the dead hand of the Gorbocracy.
But the trio of Baltic leaders in the White House on Wednesday did not presume to advise against our giving billions in baksheesh to a Soviet central government bankrupted by arms spending; they were grateful for the photo op and eager to develop connective tissue. The steady accretion of foreign recognition is their bloodless road to independence.
Moving beyond symbolism, we should warn the Kremlin that any economic punishment of the Baltics would trigger our counter-coercion. We should also lean on the Soviets to accept the Balts as observers at CSCE meetings this summer. (Last year the United States supinely allowed the Soviets to lock out the Balts.) And next March, at Helsinki II, we should link our attendance to their full participation as European nations.
Momentum is all. Norway's Nobel committee, to make up for its abysmal judgment of the recent past, should restore the luster of the Peace Prize this October by awarding it to Vytautas Landsbergis, symbol of Baltic independence.
That long-overdue return to self-determination by three little nations has always been the key to the relaxation of Soviet internal imperial rule. Keep the heat on; free the Baltics, change the world.
William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.