Vladimir Putin has had some great publicity lately. Time magazine recently dubbed him the Person of the Year. What that says about "You" - the previous recipient of the P.O.Y. designation - I don't know. Time gave Putin that title because he represents a mounting preference for authoritarianism over the chaos of democracy and the uncertainty of the free market. He "has performed an extraordinary feat of leadership in imposing stability on a nation that has rarely known it and brought Russia back to the table of world power," the editors declare.
While Time saw fit to linger on "the Russian president's pale blue eyes," it left out a fascinating rationale for Putin's power grab. For much of the last year, the Russian government has been lionizing an American president who roughly seized the reins of power, dealt briskly with civil liberties, had a harsh view of constitutional niceties and crafted a media strategy, which critics derided as "propaganda," that went "over the heads" of the Washington press corps.
George W. Bush? Nope. Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Putin has routinely invoked FDR as his role model. "Roosevelt laid out his plan for the country's development for decades in advance," he gushed at a news conference last fall. "At the end of the day, it turned out that the implementation of that plan benefited ordinary citizens and the elites and eventually brought the United States to the position it is in today."
"Roosevelt was our military ally in the 20th century, and he is becoming our ideological ally in the 21st," Putin's chief "ideologist," Vladislav Surkov, explained at a state-sponsored conference commemorating the 125th anniversary of FDR's birth.
There's a rich irony here. For years, liberals have wailed about the moral hazard of Bush's supposedly crypto- (or not-so-crypto) fascist presidency. And yet it's FDR, Lion of American Liberalism, who, some seven decades after his death, endures as the role model for Russia's lurch toward authoritarianism, if not fascism.
Interestingly, there's precedent for this. Both Fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany invoked FDR's New Deal as proof that their own programs were, in Anne Morrow Lindbergh's famous phrase, "the wave of the future."
"America has a dictator," Benito Mussolini proclaimed, watching FDR from abroad. He marveled at how the forces of "spiritual renewal" on display in the New Deal were destroying the outdated notion that democracy and liberalism were "immortal principles." "Roosevelt is moving, acting, giving orders independently of the decisions or wishes of the Senate or Congress. ... A sole will silences dissenting voices." That almost sounds like Harry Reid talking about Bush.