Character Judgment

There may be no such thing as love at first sight – just one set of neuroses running into a generally complimentary set of other neuroses, to each party’s immense relief – but sometimes one just knows that other person is the right sort of person. There’s no specific reason why. The other person just feels right. There’s no explaining it, and that’s always been a puzzle out here in Hollywood. Movie stars’ careers are built on masses of people feeling that they’re the right sort of person – Jimmy Stewart depended on that, and maybe John Wayne did too. James Garner, who just died is his sleep a few miles west of this quiet street off the Sunset Strip, had that thing going for him, that way of appearing to be the right sort of person – “He constructed a new kind of hero, one who would much rather be playing cards or going fishing. But all right, if no one else was going to save the girl, or solve the case, or prevent the crime, well, then – here, hold this for a second – he’d do it.”

It seems that the guy who “effortlessly combines strength and humility, humor and capability, frankness and empathy, to create an ideal Alpha-male” is the right sort of person. Sneering Tim Cruise isn’t, nor is perpetually angry Mel Gibson. Harrison Ford could pull it off and that explains his long career – Indiana Jones is the right sort of person. James Garner showed how it’s done, and the same seems to hold true in politics. Barack Obama twice seemed to be the right sort of person, to enough of America, in 2008 in spite of his lack of experience, and in 2012 in spite of the mess the economy was still in, even then. All it took was the other guy not being the right sort of person – McCain, the angry old war hero with a few too many senior moments, and then Romney being the rich guy lecturing those who weren’t rich on their moral failings. Policy hardly mattered – most voters have only a general idea what the government is up to or could be up to – or no idea at all. They vote on character, on the scantiest of evidence that they can’t even explain. They vote for the right sort of person.

That means that George Bush lucked out in 2000 and 2004 – Al Gore was prissy and stiff and sanctimonious, even if he was right about all sorts of things, and John Kerry was stiff and formal and often severe. Kerry also got all sorts of things right. George Bush was a goofball, but then he was “someone you could have a beer with” – shorthand for the right sort of person, if you like born-again cowboys. Just enough people did, and needless to say, all presidential campaigns, since Karl Rove came along, have been about establishing that your guy is the right sort of person. He – or now she – might advocate for locking up anyone who prefers Pepsi over Coke, but that hardly matters. If they’re the right sort of person they’ll end up doing the right sort of thing, eventually.

It’s not a bad system. No one knows what a new president will face – an unthinkable terrorist attack, a sudden war in a place no one’s ever heard of, or the worst hurricane in a century wiping out a major American city, or the total collapse of the economy. It’s all new, and no random thing they said in the campaign that got them to the White House, about policy or whatever, could possibly cover any of this. All one can hope for is that whomever seemed to be the right sort of person, way back when, is the right sort of person now.

That didn’t work out well for George Bush, probably because he took what was only a campaign tactic, establishing who is the right sort of person, and applied it to governance. He trusted his instinct – his “gut” as he said – and had no patience for those who wanted to think things through and account for all the possible consequences of any given decision. That gave us the Iraq disaster that lasted eight years, that got nearly five thousand of our troops killed and has cost us one or two trillion dollars so far, and now has left the entire region in shambles – but it seemed like a good idea at the time. It felt right. But deep feeling isn’t careful thought. Deep feeling gets you elected. Careful thought keeps the country from doing really dumb things. Obama implicitly suggested that in every campaign he ever ran.

Obama guessed, rightly, that Americans finally understood that. The right sort of person doesn’t base all his decisions on his vague sense of who is the right sort of person, who won’t lie to them or stab them in the back. Reagan was famous for saying “trust but verify” – but Bush wasn’t big on details. He trusted, or he didn’t. That was that, and that led to what now seem miscalculations. Reagan was referring to the disarmament deals he had just concluded with Gorbachev, reminding those on the hard right that he hadn’t betrayed them or betrayed America. We would verify everything. Gorbachev was a fine fellow, perhaps the right sort of person, but that wasn’t the point. In international politics being the right sort of person doesn’t mean jack shit.

Bush never got that. From June 30, 2007, in the New York Times, byline Carla Anne Robbins, there’s this item:

President Bush’s June 2001 declaration that he had looked Russia’s Vladimir Putin in the eye and “was able to get a sense of his soul” was greeted with bemusement and also relief. The cowboy president wasn’t, after all, going to start another cold war. But that sudden effusiveness wasn’t as sudden as it appeared.

Preparing for that first summit, Mr. Bush met at the White House with a group of outside experts, some of whom urged him to pay attention to Mr. Putin’s already emerging autocratic tendencies. Mr. Bush had talked tough about Russia during the campaign but now had only one thing on his mind: getting Moscow to drop its objections to his missile defense plans. His goal for the meeting, he said, was to make Mr. Putin feel comfortable.

When Mr. Bush announced in December that he was pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Russian leader made only pro forma complaints. Six years later, Mr. Bush is still emphasizing the personal and only episodically taking note of all that’s gone wrong in Moscow.

Robbins is writing about Putin arriving at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, noting the Putin is the only foreign leader Bush ever invited there, and that Bush is still saying Putin is the right sort of person, he just knows it, somehow, in spite of this:

Putin has proved to be even more autocratic at home, and more bullying abroad, than those experts had warned. Acquiescence is no longer his style. In recent months, he has accused the United States of imperialism and warned that he may retarget Russia’s nuclear weapons at Europe if Mr. Bush goes ahead with plans to build parts of the still notional missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Mr. Bush’s wooing slacked off after the ABM announcement and his advisers say the president is a lot more skeptical of his former soul-mate. Still, on the same day that Mr. Bush criticized Russia for derailing democratic reforms, he volunteered to reporters that he still calls Mr. Putin “Vladimir” and hoped to explain to Vladimir that he shouldn’t fear a missile defense system.

It’s hard to know if these two men ever genuinely liked each other. For a while Mr. Bush certainly looked more comfortable standing beside the former KGB operative than he did standing beside Bill Clinton’s then best-friend-forever Tony Blair. When a reporter asked after their first meeting what he and Mr. Blair had in common, Mr. Bush awkwardly joked that they used the same brand of toothpaste.

That encapsulates the Bush administration. It was love at first sight, or nothing, but if love at first sight is nothing more than one set of neuroses running into a generally complimentary set of other neuroses, Bush must have sensed they were soul-mates, they were both authoritarian kind of guys, each in his own way, but now there’s Joe Biden. The New Yorker is about to go behind a paywall – buy the hard copy of the magazine or pay them a hefty fee or no one will ever read their stuff again – but for now there’s a new and typically long profile of Joe Biden available, and Biden claims he had that Bush experience with Putin, but it went the other way:

“I had an interpreter, and when Putin was showing me his office I said, ‘It’s amazing what capitalism will do, won’t it? A magnificent office,'” Biden recounted, saying Putin laughed in response.

“As I turned, I was this close to him,” Biden continued, indicating the two men were face-to-face. “I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.'”

According to Biden, Putin smirked and said in response that the two men “understand one another.”

Biden might be spinning tall tales – Fox News claims that he does that now and then – but that seems about right. Putin might have thought Bush was a fool. Looking into men’s eyes and seeing their souls is what teenage girls do. Hollywood depends on it. That had nothing to do with running a country or running an effective foreign policy. Check your soul at the door, if you have a soul – and if you don’t it doesn’t really matter. Souls only get in the way.

Putin may feel that way, but now, unlike Bush, we know his character, and there’s no need to look in his eyes:

Four days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, a clearly frustrated President Barack Obama called on President Vladimir Putin to exercise his influence over Russian separatists who are preventing an investigation of the crash that killed almost 300 people.

“Given its direct influence over the separatists, Russia – and President Putin in particular – has direct responsibility to compel them to cooperate with the investigation. That is the least they can do,” Obama said in a statement outside the White House Monday, noting Russia had “urged on” the separatists, trained them, armed them, and that many key leaders are Russian citizens.

Obama said he had been assured by Putin that the Russian leader supported a full and fair investigation at the crash site. “I appreciate the words but they must be supported by actions.” Obama said it was time for Russia to “get serious” about trying to resolve the hostilities that have gripped Ukraine since early this year.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan sees a few signs of that:

Some signs suggest Putin might be backpedaling. Just this morning, news agencies reported that secessionists are letting the international inspectors enter the crash site unimpeded, a refrigerated train filled with bodies of passengers is finally rolling toward western Ukraine, and the plane’s black box will be released shortly. In another possibly significant development, an observant Ukrainian tweeted that, while Russia’s government-controlled TV newscasts from Donetsk were once datelined “Donetsk Republic” or “New Russia” (Putin’s name for eastern Ukraine), the datelines now read “Donetsk Region, Ukraine.”

Things will cool down, maybe, and a price will be paid:

This episode does not mark a return to the Cold War, and in some ways, that’s to Moscow’s disadvantage. The Cold War was a global clash of systems: the communist East vs. the capitalist West. In the most deep-freeze moments of the Cold War – for instance, in 1983, after a Soviet air-defense fighter shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 7 and the United States responded with a near cessation of diplomatic contact – Moscow still had its empire and its centrally controlled economy; what the rest of the world did was much less significant. Now Russia has no empire – no Soviet Union, no Warsaw Pact, no Comintern – and its economy is intertwined with global markets.

In short, in this conflict, Moscow has no sources of sanctuary, economic or otherwise, and a great deal to lose. Contrary to the image that he’s cleverly managed to convey, Putin is far from a master grand strategist; his many missteps during the Ukraine crisis demonstrate as much. But he’s not an idiot either. He seems to be a shrewd tactician, a clever calculator, who’s prone to wager too much while bluffing. This time the bluff’s being called. The question is whether he takes Obama’s offer to fold – or whether he doubles down and comes out blazing.

In Forbes, Paul Roderick Gregory explains the problem with this:

California Senator Barbara Feinstein has demanded that Vladimir Putin “man up” and admit that pro-Russian separatists downed MH17, mistaking it for a Ukrainian transport plane. That this is true is obvious to all except Putin’s propaganda machine that is frantically churning out absurd conspiracy theories, while Putin lies low and limits himself to vague claims of Ukrainian guilt.

Feinstein may not understand that Putin’s “manning up” could spell the end of his regime and he can’t admit the truth. Instead, Putin will ramp up his appeals for peace (with the very thugs who shot down MH17, it is now clear), pledge full cooperation with international investigations, and then stonewall like crazy. Meanwhile, he will not let Ukraine go. As a Russian analyst notes Putin has “never admitted a single error” and “never made a single step backward” in his 15 year rule. His KGB training requires him to double down, fight his way out, turn up the pressure, never admit, never retreat. He will continue his support of his proxies in east Ukraine and hope that the West’s attention span will be short.

That may be his character, what Bush didn’t see when he looked deep in the guy’s eyes, but Gregory points out the obvious:

Be it noted that Putin has already lost. He had already shelved his grand ambitions for a new Russian empire even before the MH17 catastrophe. With the downing of the Malaysian 777 with three hundred souls on board, Putin has now turned his once-proud Russia into an international pariah and has put his whole regime at risk. Putin has no hope of convincing the outside world of his propaganda fancies – that Ukraine was trying to shoot down his plane, or Ukraine somehow lured MH17 to its fateful destiny.

To keep his regime intact, he cannot afford to lose the average Russian, who gets his or her news from Putin-controlled TV. That will be his challenge. If he fails, he is in the deepest doo-doo. Russians do not want their singers and sports stars booed abroad. They do not want to be stared at standing in line at world airports. Putin gave them a chance to be proud. Now he has taken that away.

This is a PR thing:

Images – police unleashing attack dogs on black segregation protesters in Birmingham, the young Vietnamese girl burned naked by napalm – can change history. Putin must somehow neutralize the outrage of images of burly, drunken, masked thugs, menacing international investigators at the crash scene. Even worse, video from the crash site shows Putin’s surrogates openly hampering the investigation, while unceremoniously dumping victims’ bodies on rail cars destined for who knows where?

A cable networks, covering both the Gaza and Ukraine crises, recently showed a split screen of a ranting masked Hamas spokesman alongside a masked pro-Russian separatist. There was little difference between the two. Such images are not easily forgotten.

Words matter. Before MH17, the world press dutifully referred to the separatist fighters as “pro-Russian separatists” or “militia,” conjuring up images of the valiant colonial minutemen. Diplomats were similarly restrained in their choice of words. That has all changed. Secretary of State, John Kerry, on his round of Sunday interviews, repeatedly referred to Putin’s surrogates as “thugs, terrorists, and murderers.” Putin’s apologists in Europe and the United States have gone remarkably silent.

Any public relations firm worth its salt would advise Mr. Putin to come clean. Explain that the downing of MH17 was a tragic and regrettable mistake. Had the rebel forces known the incoming aircraft was a passenger jet, they would have held their fire. Putin should declare Russia’s deep regret that those fighting in its name made such a mistake. Russia should magnanimously apologize, even though it is not directly responsible. Putin should express his deep condolences to the victims’ families, and declare that he will compensate them generously for their loss. Moreover, to make sure such a tragedy never happens again, Putin should renew his pledge that Russia will fully support a professional international investigation.

And pigs will fly:

Putin cannot take this public relations advice. He cannot support an admission that shreds his public statements and contradicts his own propaganda. His public stance has been that Russia has nothing to do with this conflict. His spokespersons have denied that Russia is sponsoring the pro-Russian separatists with mercenaries and heavy equipment, including tanks and missile systems.

He’s committed, and no good will come of this:

In American politics, they say that the cover up is always worse than the crime. Come clean and you will be just fine. Putin’s is a case of a criminal regime where the crime is so bad that the costs of cover up pale by comparison. Putin can only hope that the world will be distracted by another outrage, that he can stone wall any investigation, and that his apologists can stave off action by international criminal tribunals. If he fails, he is in deep trouble.

He knows that, and Julia Ioffe covers his efforts to calm his own people first:

Did you know Malaysia Air Flight 17 was full of corpses when it took off from Amsterdam? Did you know that, for some darkly inexplicable reason, on July 17, MH17 moved off the standard flight path that it had taken every time before, and moved north, toward rebel-held areas outside Donetsk? Or that the dispatchers summoned the plane lower just before the crash? Or that the plane had been recently reinsured? Or that the Ukrainian army has air defense systems in the area? Or that it was the result of the Ukrainian military mistaking MH17 for Putin’s presidential plane, which looks strangely similar?

Did you know that the crash of MH17 was all part of an American conspiracy to provoke a big war with Russia?

Well, it’s all true – at least if you live in Russia, because this is the Malaysia Airlines crash story that you’d be seeing.

Well, he has to do something, and Gregg Rowe explains why:

Russia is a nuclear power and a near-dictatorship, but it’s a weak state. This is paradoxical given the overweening authority Putin manages to project, but it’s true. Putin has full authority over the security establishment, but that is no longer enough to endow unquestioned solidity upon the state he built. For one thing, Russia is no longer an isolated command economy. It’s been integrated into the capitalist world… You can police dissidents, but you can’t police the price of natural gas abroad.

If the old Soviet economy has been “privatized” … so, too, have other parts of Soviet power. Corporate conglomerates, a military-industrial complex, rich and insecure churches, noisy social movements (more of them on the Right than the Left), local governments carving out their own extortion zones, and many more mini- and mega-oligarchies multiply … For all his shirtless preening, Putin is no muscle-man able to wield top-down control. Instead he must exhort, scare, cajole, and distract the rest of society till he gets his way.

He’s good at that, but Daniel Berman suggests he’s not that good:

This tragedy is going to raise the economic costs of Russia’s policy, at a time when even the half-hearted sanctions have started to cause some damage. On a wider level, the events also illustrate the bind that Putin has managed to get himself into with the Ukraine. By encouraging the separatists he has raised their political expectations sky-high in a manner that can neither be met by Kiev, nor is it in the interests of Russia to meet, and while by arming them, he has vastly increased the amount of damage they can inflict in their frustration. Furthermore, for all the talk about cease-fires, it’s unclear if Putin could bring all of the groups to the table even if he wanted to, not without leaving the holdouts at the mercy of Kiev, whose success in such an operation would raise the Ukrainian Armies prestige to an unacceptable level.

Putin therefore finds himself trapped. There is no clear political objective behind the separatist campaign that Moscow can sell as a victory; but their abandonment would almost certainly lead to a clear-cut defeat.

Other than that he’s a master at this game, and George Bush looked deep in his eyes and saw his soul – and saw that Putin was the right sort of person. It was love at first sight – or it was one set of neuroses running into a generally complimentary set of other neuroses and feeling amazing relief. Sure, character counts – Michael Josephson got rich selling that idea to America – but he’s the one suing his daughter’s fancy private school out here for not cutting the kid some slack when she mouthed off to all her teachers and tore up some classrooms. One can take this character thing too far. It’s what you do, not what’s in your eyes. And now the world knows Putin. It sort of makes you miss James Garner.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Character Judgment

  1. Rick says:

    Yep, this could be Putin’s international public relations Waterloo. He’s trapped.

    Until some plane got shot down, he might have gotten away with supporting that insurgency in Eastern Ukraine, but now, it’s like Toto drawing the curtain back, and no matter what he says now, he has no way out of this. He’s been found out — which is not to say, by the way, that he’ll come clean.

    Because now, we need to watch out, since, being cornered, he may now be more dangerous than before. The rest of the world may see a dead soul when they look into his eyes, but they apparently still like him back home, which means he still has his power base behind him to launch all kinds of mischief.

    By the way, what’s the difference between one’s “soul” and one’s “character”? As someone who doesn’t believe in what most people call a “soul”, I always assume what they really mean to say is “character” — although whichever, I do (reluctantly) agree you can see it in someone’s eyes.

    But why either of these are revealed by looking into someone’s eyes is a mystery, similar to the question of why your dog and cat knows to look at your eyes, rather than, say, your hands. It seems odd that those things through which we look outward, relying on them to tell us about the world, are the same things that everybody else uses to know about us.

    Rather than being a question of our brain versus our heart — or, as Bush claimed, our gut — maybe the true center of our being is found in our eyes. Maybe it’s because one’s eyes have a hard time hiding one’s inner self: Eyes may smile when genuinely happy, but they burn when angry, dart when confused, and look away when hiding something — all three of which I’d guess is what people are seeing in Putin’s eyes today.

    And I’m curious, maybe even a little apprehensive, to see what the man decides to do tomorrow. I doubt it will turn out to be anything good.


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