The most striking line in Vladimir Putin’s New York Times column was its final sentence: “We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” It brought to mind George W. Bush’s description, in his memoirs, of his first meeting with Putin:
The summit with Putin started with a small meeting – just Vladimir and me, our national security advisers, and the interpreters. He seemed a little tense… After a few minutes I interrupted his presentation with a question: “Is it true that your mother gave you a cross that you had blessed in Jerusalem?”
A look of shock washed over Putin’s face… Putin recovered quickly and told the story. His face and his voice softened as he explained that he had hung the cross in his dacha, which subsequently caught fire. When the firefighters arrived he told them that all he cared about was the cross. He dramatically re-created the moment when a worker unfolded his hand and revealed the cross. “It was,” he said, “as if it was meant to be.”
“Vladimir,” I said, “that is the story of the cross. Things are meant to be.” I felt the tension drain from the meeting room.
After the meeting, a reporter asked if Putin was “a man that Americans can trust.” I said yes. I thought of the emotion in Vladimir’s voice when he shared the story of the cross. “I looked the man in the eye,” I said … “I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
I think Putin was trying to convince Americans that he was a leader they could trust, and drawing on his experience with Bush, decided that the best way to do so was to give New York Times readers a peek into his God-fearing soul. It was a cynical ploy, of course, and it backfired badly. But as another cynical statesman, Barack Obama, can testify, “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.”