Jewish World Review June 28, 2001 / 7 Tamuz, 5761
-- George W. Bush,
June 16, 2001, on Russian
President Vladimir Putin
"Mr. Putin was far from deserving the powerful political prestige and influence that comes from an excessively personal endorsement by the president of the United States."
-- Sen. Jesse M. Helms,
June 20, 2001
To understand what put Sen. Helms in such a tizzy that he felt compelled to publicly spank a president of his own party, you have to first consider the matter of Sammy Sosa.
In 1989, Sammy Sosa played for the Texas Rangers, a baseball team partially owned by one George W. Bush. Bush, who had only recently been made the Rangers' chief executive and who had much to learn, took a sense of Sosa's soul and traded him to the Chicago White Sox. Considering that nine years later with the Chicago Cubs, Sosa was in a chase for the home run record, this was a mistake.
To further grasp the implications of Bush's judgment of Putin, and of Helms's unhappiness over that judgment, you have to consider that baseball was something with which Bush had some experience. He came from a baseball family -- his father played for Yale; his great-uncle George Herbert Walker once owned 6 percent of the New York Mets -- and he had played the game himself in Little League and on a varsity level at prep school. He was a lifelong avid fan, and he would turn out to be a natural at running a ball team.
As the Putin example shows, Bush puts great stock in his gut instinct -- his ability to look into other people's eyes (he is forever talking about this) and getting a sense of their souls. As the Sosa example shows, he is quite capable of getting the sense completely wrong -- even where he is knowledgeable.
Now you come to the presidency, Russia and Putin. Here, inarguably, Bush knows very little. He cannot know a lot (at least firsthand) about being president, because he has not been president for very long. He cannot know a lot about Russia, because he has never been there. He cannot know a lot about Putin, because he had never met him before this month's trip.
So what you have here is a situation in which a prudent man would begin by knowing his limitations -- by admitting ignorance, proceeding with study and basing eventual judgments on facts, not first impressions.
Vladimir Putin may be, as Bush feels, an honest, straightforward guy with a perfectly swell soul who loves his family. On the other hand, he indisputably is a guy who was willing to crush a rebellion in Chechnya with vast and murderous force, to shut down the only independent television network when that network criticized his government, to violate arms-control treaties and to continue Russia's practice of selling arms to states hostile to the United States. Also, he spent most of his career in the service of the Soviet Union's KGB, which calls the quality-of-soul claim into some doubt.
The worrisome thing about Bush is not, as his reactionary critics have it, that he is an idiot who can't get anything right. He has, especially in foreign policy, gotten it mostly right. He effectively warned China not to try to eat Taiwan, which may avert a war. He moved the international conversation on global warming out of a dead end by burying the Kyoto protocol. He insisted on moving ahead with a necessary missile defense against rogue nations. He has made these decisions largely, it seems, on gut, and his gut serves him well.
No, what is worrisome is that Bush -- and in this he seems dangerously to resemble the foreign-policy-disaster-prone John F. Kennedy -- does not seem to understand, or care about, the limits of gut. He does not seem to want to bother with the tedious business of study and fact-assessment that is the process by which right decisions are most often arrived at -- which is even then not so often. He does not seem to want to work at the thing.
The idea that he does not know what he does not know does not seem to ever occur to Bush. This is a problem and one that is a great deal more consequential in the case of Putin than in the case of