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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clinton's Politics of Soul Is Bad Taste

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Mentioning Senator Hillary Clinton's name in an e-mail to a Moscow friend evoked a fury in the reply that caught me off guard. Though counting herself no great follower of President Vladimir Putin, my friend was still put out by Clinton's comment that he had no soul. She was offended both as a patriot and as an Orthodox believer.

It is never pleasant to hear your country's leader compared to the walking dead -- especially by a foreigner. This also would seem to be a perfect example of the "politics of personal destruction" that Bill Clinton wished to put aside during his own run for U.S. president.

My friend and her family are beneficiaries of the success of the Putin years. They are able to worship freely without fear of consequence in their careers. They are able to make a decent, honest living and have risen from the squalor of a communal apartment to acquiring a comfortable, spacious apartment of their own. They travel frequently and freely. Though they speak of their annual vacation in Spain with casual insouciance, on some level they remember when the Soviet border had a lock and key. Their pleasures are keener precisely because they don't take them for granted.

Critical voices will immediately point out that religious freedom really began in 1988, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev allowed the celebration of the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity in Russia. Freedom of travel was already well developed under President Boris Yeltsin as was economic opportunity. But those things had a different quality under Gorbachev and Yeltsin -- they were exceptional, a lark, a spree. A chance to grab a billion from a collapsing state and a fairly regular and predictable business environment are two different things.

To some degree, remarks are always taken out of context. Every remark is made in the context of a culture with its own complex webs of associations and attitudes. Hillary Clinton's remarks were an offhanded crowd-pleaser -- a joke told to a group of voters in New Hampshire. But that sheen of softening humor wasn't there when the words reverberated in Russia. By then, her words had only their naked meaning, and an unpleasant meaning it was in a country that is still smarting from the humiliations of the '90s.

Warning against personalizing diplomacy, Clinton was playing off U.S. President George W. Bush's famous remark about looking into Putin's eyes and getting a sense of his soul. Her exact words were: "He was a KGB agent. By definition he doesn't have a soul." That kind of smart-aleck, college-girl remark may have played well in a small-town gathering of voters, but it doesn't play well on the international stage. Confirming national stereotypes is always comforting because it frees people from the rigors of thought. Her remark inadvertently also confirmed two Russian stereotypes about Americans -- the clueless (Bush) and the snooty (Clinton).

The Russian leadership, of course, also makes plenty of derogatory remarks about the United States that are, like Clinton's, designed for domestic consumption only. But there are real differences. Putin almost never mentions the United States directly and certainly would never say anything openly hostile about Bush personally. Putin's veiled assertions can, however, be more pervasively poisonous than outright denunciations, and some of the differences can be written off as cultural.

One thing does, however, seem certain. Whatever actual configuration Russian politics assumes after the March 2 presidential election, Putin is going to be a force to be reckoned with for a good while to come. That's no secret and should have been clear to Clinton. So where was her vaunted experience when that remark was made?

It wasn't something Barack Obama would have said. He's got too much soul.

Richard Lourie is the author of "A Hatred For Tulips" and "Sakharov: A Biography."