Published 21-12-2012, 10:42
Watching Vladimir Putin once again keep an auditorium of international journalists suspended in anticipation for over four hours confirmed my suspicions: This guy is no ordinary politician. Think about it. What other international leader would be able to maintain the momentum of a Q&A session for such a long time? As articulate as US president Barack Obama may be, the audience would start yawning after the first thirty minutes, or when his teleprompter broke down, whichever came first.
Putin is the only leader in the world who voluntarily submits himself to this media grilling for such a long period of time, which pushes the boundaries of mental and physical duration. And his answers are always marvelous bits of wisdom and wit, always tempered with some colorful turn of phrase. And it is always a sold-out show, with over 1,000 journalists from all over the world packing into Moscow to listen to him speak.
In September 2008, I had the honor of attending a Valdai discussion/dinner in Sochi with the Russian President. It was certainly the high point of my journalism career. About fifty of us stood outside of the venue for over 90 minutes waiting for His arrival as waiters filled our wine glasses every time they went dry, which seemed a bit too often. We were excited. Or nervous. Who could blame us? When Putin arrived, we followed him into the hall where there was served the finest food this side of Eden: I will never forget the taste of Duck with Figs and Orange Sauce, as the menu boldly declared'
Around the massive round table, journalists were rolling their eyes with gastronomic delight as Putin, sipping occasionally from an ornate tea cup, provided the conversation. Once in a while, an idle journalists' hand would raise to interject a question or comment. And Putin, as usual, never missed a beat. It cannot be denied that the Russian leader has the most impressive grip on every subject under the sun. One gets the impression that he must never sleep.
The most memorable part of the Sochi meeting - aside from the Duck, of course - was how the assembled journalists resembled some kind of music groupies when the show was over. They practically knocked Putin over as they huddled around him to ask more questions and, my favorite part, his autograph. The same group of reporters who would return home and write tired and tepid articles on Putin and Russia, so predictable that they look like they were produced in a Pringle factory, were clamoring around Putin like he was their favorite rock star. To this day, I regret not having my menu signed by Putin, but I did snap a few photos with my mobile phone that show the Russian leader surrounded by well-fed, enthusiastic reporters.
Recently, Barack Obama was named person of the Year by Time magazine, which, given where Time headquarters is located, should not come as a surprise. This is going off the path, but why do we continue to award Obama awards for accomplishments that are still dangling in the future, like enchanted dreams? Maybe we think if we give him enough encouragement, he will finally close Guantanamo Bay, prosecute some CEOs for the economic crisis, and stop destroying US civil liberties (read: National Defense Authorization Act, which gives the US military the power to lock up US citizens indefinitely and without a trial). Yes, person of the year.
Putin, meanwhile, has brought Russia back from its Soviet grave, calmed the violence in the Caucasus, and - the biggest achievement to date, in my opinion: never waged a war on another sovereign people! Imagine! Compare that record to the United States. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, America has unleashed aerial hell on millions of people, not least of all in Iraq, which the Bush administration attacked on the premise that Saddam Hussein had WMDs. Of course, he didn't, as the weapons inspectors were trying to tell us on the ground from Baghdad for weeks before the fireworks began. Oops! We were wrong! Lets call up a commission and make sure we don't do THAT again. Increasingly, that's what we like to call democracy: Admitting a mistake after the fact, yet doing nothing to make sure it didn't happen in the first place.
And the mistakes continue with incredible regularity, as they did in Afghanistan, in Libya, and as they may again in Syria, and even Iran. Meanwhile, Russia gets upbraided because it dared act in self defense when Georgia attacked South Ossetia, killing about a dozen Russian peacekeepers in the process. The West actually had the nerve to call this Russian imperialism.
Finally, Putin is the only leader who dares stand up to the increasingly pugilistic behavior of the United States. Europe is so submissive to Washington that a few European countries - the Watchtower of democracy, mind you - closed their eyes as the US used their territories for black hole facilities, purgatories were alleged terrorists were tortured. Some even got shipped on a one way flight to Guantanamo Bay, where they are still waiting for the next boot to drop.
Yet Russia is the authoritarian state.