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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Excels as 'Our Guy'

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When the president of the United States -- any president of the United States -- walks into the room to tell you something, protocol and common civility dictate that you lend him an ear. Especially if he's put off his nap for the occasion. Waiting with my students and their visiting Soviet peers for Ronald Reagan's address to the assembled participants of the U.S.-Soviet high school exchange in 1989, I found my enthusiasm well and truly curbed. I would hear the man out, certainly; but after years of alternating incredulity and dismay at Reagan's alarming superficiality and phantom governance, I was above all hoping that the event would not prove yet another international embarrassment. This president, after all, had once "joked" on live radio: "We begin bombing Russia in five minutes." Ha ha. Anything could happen.

Suddenly Reagan began: "Well ... I look out at these wonderful young faces here and y'know [pause, disarming smile] I can't tell who's Russian and who's American!"

A good opening line, nicely delivered, and the room melted. My semi-grudging response: "Hey, this guy is an actor, after all." The president then went into a series of pleasantly forgettable remarks asserting the virtues of the self-evidently virtuous -- education, mom's apple pie, babushka's meat turnovers and the like. The power of "great communication" lay not in its trivial content, but in its velvet-steamroller delivery.

If my skepticism and trepidation eased a bit at the president's opening gambit, each subsequent sally edged me slightly closer to the Gipper's corner. At the second banality I was nodding my head benignly. Next, a modest one-liner had me joining scattered applause. Four minutes on I was looking around for my Soviet colleagues, eager to signal: "Not too shabby, eh?" By minute six I was practically convinced it really was "Morning in America." And after 10 minutes I wasn't that far from Peter Sellers' mad German scientist in "Dr. Strangelove," my right arm just itching to fly up in salute.

After departing the premises -- without the promised lunch -- I paused to collect my wits and consider what had happened. Dismissing alcohol, controlled substances and voodoo, two points emerged. First, Reagan really was both naturally charming and extremely adept at using that charm. Knowing this beforehand was one thing; experiencing it firsthand was quite another.

Second, and of greater import here, was the context: the mixed audience. When you are surrounded by people who represent an other -- another country, another culture and another political system, in this case -- a surprisingly strong desire to identify with and rally around symbols of your own country can arise reflexively. The man standing in front of you is no longer just the U.S. president; he is Our Guy. You want him to be impressive, to look good in front of the others. Like him or not, Our Guy is up there for all of us. Including you.

The enormous and sustained popularity of President Vladimir Putin, whose approval rating hovers above 70 percent, surely owes much to this second phenomenon. Putin's personal success with his home audience, in parallel with Reagan's, has been greater than his success as president. Put otherwise, despite Russia's problems -- which are many, serious and not going away soon -- the vast majority of the nation's citizens behold this president as Our Guy.

Calm, smooth, articulate and almost always in control, Putin is the consummate not-Gorbachev, not-Yeltsin of a new paradigm. Instead of enormous popularity followed by near-total rejection, he embodies an attractive continuum of apparent order and inevitability. Putin is the benevolent yet imposing figurehead of "sovereign democracy," an Our Guy up there for you and against all those others, foreign and domestic.

Putin's marathon televised call-in shows are models of manipulation almost en passant, as seeming omniscience is winningly leavened with aw-shucks approachability. Which is why people here do not visibly cringe when a caller implores, "What will we do without you?"

Whether this neo-cult is a good thing here is ultimately for Russians to judge. While I have real reservations about Putin, I think my 10 minutes with Reagan have helped me see why most Russians do not. In any case, if this president would like to try his skills on me, I'll be glad to accept an invitation to lunch in the Kremlin. Only this time it had better be in the Kremlin, and there'd better be lunch.

Mark H. Teeter teaches Russian-American relations and English in Moscow.