George Washington and Vladimir Putin
[I hate to upstage my novel posts on Antichrists and the New York Times’ transparently yellow push for war. But this one already has waited too long after the Russian Spring.]
When I was young, Thomas Jefferson was my favorite Founder. I’m a writer’s son, and words matter to me. His glowing phrases, including “all men are created equal,” enchanted me just as they had ennobled our new nation.
But as a man, Jefferson was hardly a role model, let alone for equality. He was landed gentry, who lived for his time in extreme opulence, far beyond his means. He was a plutocrat of his day.
Despite giving us those glowing words, Jefferson kept slaves all his life. He never freed any but Sally Hemmings and her children, who we now know were his mistress and his own offspring. When he died, his great estate, his huge library, and his slaves were sold off to pay his enormous debts. Jefferson embodied the self-regard and horrible contradictions of our Southern aristocracy that still exist today.
George Washington I always took for granted. He was a man of great character and courage but few words, even fewer of which were memorable. About all we recall from his words today is his warning to beware foreign entanglements. (The famous story about the cherry tree is now known to be a myth.)
Washington survives in deeds, not words. He was a physical giant for his time—tall, immensely strong, and later full of courage and perseverance as our leading soldier.
He was not a particularly gifted strategist. Nor had he any formal military training before taking command of our rag-tag troops. During our Revolutionary War, he left a small trail in Brooklyn unguarded. That mistake cost our forces New York City and nearly the war.
But Washington was a good leader and motivator of men, always in the thick of battle and leading the way. Our six-year War of Independence was our longest until Vietnam. Through luck and learning, he eventually led his ill-trained, ill-equipped and generally miserable troops to a miraculous victory over the Western world’s then mightiest imperial power.
Washington and his officers all held a very realistic fear of being hanged as traitors if they had lost. Cynics might say that fear motivated their legendary perseverance. But without it we would not have become a nation.
Among Washington’s greatest traits were modesty and humility. His sheer height, strength, size and dignity attracted natural obedience. After the War, so did his perseverance, motivational skill, and success in battle. Like Caesar in Shakespeare’s famous play, he could have had it all. But like the fictional Caesar, he thrice refused the offered crown.
Washington and Jefferson were both Southern landed gentry. But Washington was among the leaders of the movement to outlaw aristocracy in our Constitution. When the time came to name our supreme leader, he pushed strongly against bombastic titles and for a simple, democratic, “Mr. President.”
Most of all, Washington stepped down. After two terms as president, he could easily have had a third. His party and many of his colleagues begged him to remain in office.
He declined. It was time, he thought, to let others continue the work he had begun. And he wanted to establish a firm and healthy precedent for term limits, long before they had the force of law. A presidency for life, he thought, resembled nothing so much as monarchy, even without the title.
Washington’s healthy custom of term limits lasted a century and a half, without legal force. It held until our greatest trials since our own Civil War—the Great Depression and two mighty, globe-straddling military tyrannies. Only then did we rely on FDR for four terms, during the last of which he died exhausted. Later we put Washington’s wise term limits into our Constitution.
As Vladimir Putin juggles Russian constitutional law like so many wooden matryoshki to stay in power, it is impossible not to make invidious comparisons.
I am no Putin basher. I have studied the Russian language for exactly fifty years now. In 1993, I spent four months in Moscow as a Fulbright Fellow teaching law, in Russian, at the same educational institute that trained Putin himself. While not a recognized Russian “expert,” I know Russia far better than most Americans.
With that knowledge, I have great respect for what Putin has accomplished. He consummated Yeltsin’s incipient (and often drunken) revolution. He purged Russia of the scourge of Communism without war, bloodshed or tragic misuse of nuclear weapons. He finished removing Stalin’s barbed-wire compartments, re-established peaceful trade with Germany, and made the Russian-German corridor one of the world’s most lucrative trade routes.
While keeping tight reins on government and so suppressing other, more dangerous strongmen, Putin gave Russia’s people more personal freedom and prosperity than they had ever known. And he used Russia’s natural resources, principally oil, to reconstruct a semblance of a normal economy that seventy years of fictional economic theory had destroyed.
For all these things, Putin deserves the gratitude of the Russian people and (given Russia’s huge arsenal of nuclear weapons) the world. In terms of sheer accomplishment, he is one of the most admirable leaders on the world stage today.
But people do not age like wine. They age like eggs.
Our FDR was a rare exception. Crippled by polio in his prime, he had little to live for but his people and his nation.
FDR literally gave himself to us. Watching old newsreels of his four-term presidency is like watching one of those horror movies in which fictional zombies steal people’s souls. The cares and stress of our most consequential presidency literally sucked the life out of him. And in the end, he failed adequately to anticipate the menace of militant, international Communism—a task that fell suddenly to Harry Truman when he died.
Not one leader in a million could duplicate FDR’s feat. Maybe you had to have suffered his unique disability even to try.
Putin obviously is not the one. As a young, visionary leader, he once spoke before the Bundestag—in fluent German!—about a peaceful, prosperous realm from the Atlantic to the Urals. Now he has become cynical and vulgar. He makes crude jokes, in public, about spit for us Yanks and condoms for his own struggling people.
These jokes are not just signs of a puerile intellect once disguised by great seriousness and dedication. They are signs of an increasing cynicism, loss of idealism and arrogance of power. They are whiffs of hydrogen sulfide from the rotting eggs that most of us become as we age.
Putin now has a choice. He’s about where Mao was after unifying China and resurrecting it from the devastation of world war. He can step down and let other, newer, fresher people build on what he has done. Or, like Mao, he can create a cult of personality, prolong his personal power, and set his nation and his people back decades. If he goes down that awful path, he could even become another Antichrist.
Putin seems to know better than that. Unlike nearly all Antichrists, already he has installed a potential successor. Dmitriy Medvedev is a modest, reasonable lawyer with an apparently real penchant for modernity and the rule of law. At the least, he could make a good transitional figure. He could continue slow progress toward democracy while political parties in Russia, which are only now beginning, sort themselves out.
But Putin’s personal choice is clear and stark. He can have his bright legacy or continue his personal power. He can’t do both. The delusion that he—or any man—is indispensable will only hurt Russia.
The choice Putin makes will fix the Russian people’s immediate future. It will mold their best chance soon to shed the serfdom they have known now for a thousand years. For their sake and for ours, may he make the same wise choice that Washington once made.