Thursday, June 15, 2017
Somehow, I managed to miss much of movie director Oliver Stone’s four-hour magnum opus, The Putin Interviews (aka My Pal Vlad), a semi-quasi documentary now eating up the Showtime airwaves and exploring the softer, more human side of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. “He’s been through a lot. He’s been insulted and abused,” Stone told funnyman talk-show host Stephen Colbert. For me, four hours qualifies as a really big time commitment. If I’m going to piss away such a huge chunk of my life, I figured I’d be better served feasting my eyes on the great 30 for 30 sports documentary series that aired this week on ESPN, tracing the much storied rivalry between the Boston Celtics — pronounced “keltics” in my family — and the Los Angeles Lakers. As sports escapism goes, it’s unsurpassed. And it’s not really escapism; it only pretends to be. As with any documentary about sports in America, it’s inevitably all about racism. Stone, by contrast, is dangerously prone to man crushes on strong-arm dictators so long as they find themselves at cross purposes with the United States. In so doing, Stone does a grave disservice to Self-Loathing Revisionists (SLR) everywhere. The whole value of being an SLR is to highlight the extent to which our own emperor has no clothes. It’s not to gush and fawn over the wardrobes of other emperors. To the extent Stone is about recognizing our own hypocrisy in world affairs, he’s got a point. But just because the United States aggressively interfered in the elections of so many other countries doesn’t mean Putin is to be applauded for giving us a taste of our own medicine. In Stone’s documentary, Putin is shown chilling in his man cave, where he happens to have his own personal gilded man chapel. To his credit, Stone reveals Putin prefers to worship standing up. Others, Putin said, can kneel if they must. Genuflection is permitted, he adds. Clearly, Stone should have declined the invitation.
Obviously, Putin and Russia were very much in the news this week as U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III mustered all the affronted umbrage his dignified-Southern-gentleman stagecraft would allow at the suggestion he might have been playing footsies with the Rooskies. Sessions got positively puce with indignation and seethed how his honor had been besmirched by “scurrilous and false allegations,” not to mention “appalling and detestable lies.” The factual record, however, indicates that Sessions had already met on two occasions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak when he testified during his confirmation hearing that he’d never met with any Russians. One was a sit-down confab held in Sessions’s own office. It was not incidental chitchat exchanged while passing in a hallway of a swank hotel. Whether Sessions took off his shoes and socks to engage in full-frothal interdigital toe-lock with the redoubtable Kislyak I don’t pretend to know. I am struck, however, by the selective amnesia that allowed Sessions, shiny-faced with indignation, to recall so little of what he and Kislyak spoke about. One would think something might stick out. It’s not like Sessions had a history of pow-wowing with foreign attaches throughout his long Senate career. In fact, he absolutely never did. But then, Sessions also displayed a magnificent lack of recall as he repeatedly invoked a fake policy when refusing to disclose any conversations he’d had with President Donald Trump. Was it a policy, a principle, a law? Where was it written? He didn’t know. And when California Senator Kamala Harris — as one former prosecutor to another — pressed him for details, he got “nervous” by the rat-a-tat speed with which she demanded answers. Naturally, Harris — who as a woman and African American happens to belong to two subgroups with which Sessions is not on good terms — was admonished by the chair to back off and give the honorable Southern white gentleman the time and space needed to not answer her questions.
All this was swimming around my brain as I listened to two Russian journalist-scholars — Anton Barbashin and Olga Irisova — speak this Monday at a forum sponsored by the ever-redoubtable Channel Cities Club in the Ronald Reagan Room of the DoubleTree on life in Russia since Putin and “his little green men” didn’t invade the Ukraine in 2014. While Stone told the world that the Russian people “have never been better off,” this pair pointed out that Russia’s gross domestic product had plunged by $1 trillion since the non-invasion. The economic sanctions have clearly hurt Putin; he desperately wants them lifted. Monday, it turns out, just happened to be Russia Day in Russia. Tens of thousands of Russians — mostly too young to have anything yet to lose — celebrated by taking to the streets in more than 100 cities to protest Putin’s rule. According to Barbashin, more than 1,800 had been arrested by mid-afternoon. “That’s a holiday in Russia,” he deadpanned.
Are Democrats pimping Trump’s Russian connections just because they can’t get over losing the election? A fair question perhaps, but given the facts, also stupid. Forget General Michael Flynn and his secret meetings with Kislyak, about which he lied. Trump’s very own campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had previously run the elections for Putin’s hand-picked puppet in the Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had developed such chummy relations with Putin as Exxon CEO that Putin gave him Russia’s Order of Friendship medal. Little wonder Tillerson is now expressing “reservations” about the tough new sanctions on Putin that the Senate is expected to adopt. One needn’t be a conspiracy nut to acknowledge the obvious. That’s something Oliver Stone used to understand.