Imagine that George Bush could command American television networks to limit their broadcasts to heroic rescues in New Orleans while blacking out scenes of human misery there. Imagine, too, that Bush could compel Congress to endorse his handling of Hurricane Katrina. Imagine that, and you will have created an American version of Vladimir Putin's Russia.
Unlike the state-controlled broadcast media, newspapers here are largely free to rip into the leader's incompetence, since they stir little popular response. Opposition politicians shout their dissent from the rooftops, only to be ignored by the police and the public. Putin meanwhile stolidly counts and parcels out unimagined petrodollar surpluses that have given his Kremlin leadership a new lease on life.
I don't know if fantasies of Putin-like control make their way into Bush's daydreams in times such as these. But it is clear that when the president meets with Putin later this week in Washington, he will find comfort in the Russian's company. Similarities of temperament, of outlook and now of experiences in national trauma unite these two men personally, whatever their policy differences over Iraq, Iran and other crises.
The energy, charm and disciplined focus that have impressed Bush in past meetings were on display during a vigorous seminar lasting two hours and 15 minutes that Putin conducted for a group of foreign visitors to the Kremlin last week. Visible too at other moments were streaks of personal vindictiveness, and an almost Bushian determination to be proved right, whatever the experts and intellectuals say.
"All politicians are criticized for something," Putin responded dismissively when told that he was frequently described abroad as an authoritarian ruler who had brought "managed democracy" to Russia. "Democracy exists or it does not exist. . . . I do not agree that I am authoritarian." And that was that.
He ranged nimbly over the importance of religion in post-communist Russia, his plans to make "energy security" a fulcrum for his foreign policy, the war in Chechnya and other weighty topics. But the real subject of the session was Vladimir Putin himself, who has grown from being an isolated former KGB colonel into a formidable, world-class politician since being catapulted into power by Boris Yeltsin on Dec. 31, 1999.
The instant liking that Bush took to him has endured as Putin has -- with public approval -- consolidated political and economic power in the Kremlin, all in the name of bringing "stability" out of the "chaos" that prevailed in Yeltsin's time. Putin shares with Bush an intense estrangement from the elites that helped form him and promote him to power. Harvard MBAs and Russian oligarchs are ultimately incapable of grasping the leader's understanding of, and identity with, "the people."
Bush will find a sympathetic listener in Putin when they talk Friday about the polarized aftermath of Katrina. A year ago this month a bungled Russian rescue operation failed to prevent the massacre of hundreds of schoolchildren by Chechen terrorists in Beslan. An initial wave of national shock and horror subsided as criticism of the government was kept off the air and out of the Duma debate. Putin has essentially brazened out the trauma.
Katrina proved that not even "the strongest country in the world" had sufficient emergency services to cope immediately with unexpected disaster, Putin said in the Kremlin meeting with the participants of the Valdai conference. His reliance on and appeal to Russian fatalism were unmistakable.
So was his "I told you so" attitude about Ukraine, where he claims corruption and chaos are spreading as a result of the election of President Viktor Yushchenko over a Kremlin-backed candidate in December. But Putin significantly softened earlier criticisms of the United States, the European Union and Western nongovernmental organizations for meddling in Ukraine, saying: "What we want is to have our opinions listened to" on developments in the territories of the former Soviet Union.
"We are not going back to a Russian empire," he said. "Only an idiot could imagine we are striving toward that. It is not possible, and Russia has no interest in having the whole world against it."
Pressed on his political future, Putin delivered a Shermanesque declaration that he will not run for reelection in 2008 under any circumstances, since his candidacy is ruled out by the Russian constitution. Changing the constitution would be "destabilizing."
His polished pitch almost certainly masks a continuing sense of betrayal over Ukraine and a wariness of Bush's global democracy campaign. But it is nonetheless encouraging that Putin is making the right noises about democracy and international cooperation. Now if he can only convince himself.