I was listening to the NPR Politics podcast after work today, and they led the show with Trump’s thoughts on Vladimir Putin at the MSNBC Town Hall event last night. Here is the segment (and MSNBC’s camerawork makes me sick, be advised).
I find Trump’s being such a devoted stan for Putin really unsettling. But what struck me was how this is a relationship that has played out so many times in the past. In the research for my dissertation, I looked at the books from failed candidates from Wendell Willkie onward. I’m going to have more to say on this in a few days, but for now, let’s look at the representation of Russian leaders by American ones.
Adlai Stevenson lost to Eisenhower and Nixon in 1952, 1956, and to JFK for the nomination in 1960. After losing for the second time, he wrote Friends and Enemies in 1958/1959, about the relationship between the US and Russia. It included the lengthy retelling of Stevenson’s trip to Moscow in the summer of 1958, where he met with Khrushchev. Stevenson emphasizes how unexpectedly long this meeting went—how Khrushchev wouldn’t actually let the conversation drop to the point where Stevenson could ask if he should be going. Not only did Khrushchev press Stevenson for his time, but he actually “paid me a pretty compliment” in remarking that he had read Stevenson’s speeches and trusted his intentions (Stevenson, Friends and Enemies, 10). First the complimenting, then the confiding: “At one stage Mr. Khrushchev confided in me that when the leaders of the Communist countries get together, they always toast their best friend, the American Secretary of State, Mr. Dulles. “We say: We will regret it if President Eisenhower’s sputnik leaves the State Department, for he helps us so. We’ll hardly get a more helpful opponent”” (12), Stevenson mentioned, deftly stealing Khrushchev’s joke. Finally, the offers of marriage: apparently they joked around about marrying Stevenson’s sons off to young Russian women. And just like that, rhetorically, Stevenson brought peace to our time through the age-old marriage-to-end-a-blood-feud strategy. Kind of. At least in his book.
The next failed candidate, Richard Nixon, also included a long chapter about his famous square-off with Khrushchev in 1959 in his 1962 campaign book Six Crises. Nixon emphasized how this was a battle of wits and a battle of wills, and he was evenly matched against a formidable opponent but actually managed to score some points in the famous ‘kitchen debate’ in a model American home at an expo in Moscow. Beyond Khrushchev, Nixon spends considerable time in later books discussing his relationship with Leonid Brezhnev, Khrushchev’s successor. I’ll come back to Brezhnev in a moment.
Hubert Humphrey, who Nixon beat in 1968 and again in 1972 (these guys never knew when to quit), also included a chapter in his 1976 memoir containing a familiar-sounding anecdote: from pages 197 to 203, Humphrey relates in rich detail his conversation with Khrushchev, also in Moscow, in 1958. This conversation was also scheduled last-minute and lasted hours and hours longer than Humphrey expected, which he was also deeply flattered by. You simply have to wonder how Khrushchev fit them all in within the year, and how consciously Khrushchev was moving pieces around on the chessboard, flattering the failed candidates and the opposition leaders.
But it’s not just that they met with Khrushchev and matched wits. Rather, there’s a very particular emphasis in some of these retellings.
Let me retell one of Nixon’s favorite anecdotes, one that shows up in almost every one of his post-presidential books with the wording hardly changed. When Nixon was vice president, he asked Churchill how Churchill liked to write. Churchill said that he had a dictaphone, but he preferred to dictate to a pretty girl. Later, in Moscow, on a boat with Brezhnev, Nixon related Churchill’s preference to Brezhnev. Brezhnev agreed, and also winked and said that yes, having a secretary around was also very useful when you woke up in the middle of the night and wanted to make a note. [Ew.] In Leaders, Nixon brings this point home by mentioning that the Russian leader enjoyed the company of buxom women—Nixon himself had seen Brezhnev’s masseuse leaving his quarters and noted that she wore the same brand of perfume as Mrs. Nixon. [Ew.]
Humphrey does something very similar: “When he and I were seated again, I told him an old, and probably apocryphal, story about Winston Churchill and Clement Atlee.” To make a long anecdote short, Atlee thinks that Churchill is next to him when they leave a heated debate to take a piss, and ends up talking to himself alone at a urinal while Churchill uses a urinal on the far side of the room, probably smiling smugly as he does so. He yells at Churchill when he realizes what’s happened, and Churchill replies “Look, Clem, you socialists are all alike. Whenever you see something that is big and functioning smoothly, you want to nationalize it” (Humphrey, The Education of a Public Man, 201-202).
Can you say…
Like, the sheer obviousness of the posturing, the macho posturing, the dick-measuring, and maybe most troubling, the transparent susceptibility to flattery, just blows my mind. Stevenson and Humphrey seem to melt like butter over a little extra time and attention from Khrushchev, especially they way they tell these stories after losing elections as if to demonstrate just how well they would have gotten along with the man if they had been elected. Stevenson relishes the smallest of compliments. Nixon and Humphrey enjoy a spot of almost-literal dick measuring.
Anyway, to go back to the podcast that touched this whole thing off for me. What surprised me was how surprised the NPR reporters seemed to be by Trump’s respect for Putin: considering that the US and Russia have been adversaries since 1945, they said, it’s just unprecedented that a Republican presidential candidate would be so positive about a Russian leader.
Which is where I think they’re wrong: the playbook candidates have drawn from since Stevenson has been that—as I believe the phrase goes—real recognize real. By building up your enemy, by promoting the idea of this macho gentlemen’s code where you recognize and honor and make dick jokes with a worthy adversary, you boost yourself. Trump doing the same thing with Putin, even without such a clear meeting-of-equals anecdote, is a return to Cold War politics of the highest order, rather than a rejection of the entire Cold War and everything it stood for–including a return to a political order built on macho bro-bonding, implicitly rejecting the fitness of a female candidate.
Is that a good reason to forgive his sudden embrace of Putin? Nope. But it’s interesting that in this election, we have a female candidate running on a foreign policy platform and this is her opponent’s approach to Russia. *thinking-face emoji*
More on this from me soon–I have Thoughts on foreign policy and candidacy.