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Republicans Fume as Obama Fails to Sense Chavez' Soul

April 20, 2009

That Republicans would be outraged over President Obama's handshake with the buffoonish Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was predictable in much the same way one can forecast the daily setting of the sun. But while Obama brushed off the significance of the brief encounter at the Summit of the Americas, Nevada Senator John Ensign deemed "irresponsible" what New Gingrich blasted as bolstering the "enemies of America." Apparently, President Obama failed, as George W. Bush did with Vladimir Putin, to first look the man in the eyes and "get a sense of his soul."
For their part, Republicans including Ensign, Gregg and Gingrich were frothing at the mouth over the episode. Regarding Chavez, whose disdain towards Obama's predecessor was no doubt fueled in part by the Bush administration's botched handling of the 2002 coup which briefly ousted the Venezuelan, Gingrich thundered:

"Frankly, this does look a lot like Jimmy Carter. Carter tried weakness, and the world got tougher and tougher, because the predators, the aggressors, the anti-Americans, the dictators - when they sense weakness, they all start pushing ahead."

Sadly for the poseurs of the raging right, Gingrich's description sounds like former KGB chief turned budding Russian autocrat, Vladimir Putin, circa 2001. And while Judd Gregg acknowledged that Hugo Chavez now is "not a strategic threat," Putin over the course of the Bush presidency balked at U.S. missile defense, rejected American pressure on Iran and North Korea, and quickly bulldozed Washington ally Georgia.
But in 2001, the new President assured the world that Putin was a good man. Turning to his instinctual ability to know hearts and souls, Bush beamed after his first meeting with Putin. At a joint press conference on June 16, 2001, Bush praised the former KGB chieftain as a man he could trust:

"I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul."

Five months later at his Crawford, Texas ranch, President Bush again testified to the character of the Russian leader standing next to him:

"The more I get to know President Putin, the more I get to see his heart and soul, and the more I know we can work together in a positive way."

(For his part, Bush's would-have-been successor John McCain repeatedly claimed that when he looked into Vladimir Putin's, "I saw three things - a K and a G and a B." Of course, that didn't stop McCain from giving President Bush an "A" for his June 2001 soul-sensing meeting with Putin. Regardless, just months before the Russia-Georgia conflict this summer, Bush insisted, "Do I trust him? Yes, I trust him.")
Bush's immediate fondness for the nascent Russian tyrant turned soul mate may have had something to do with their shared interests. As George W. Bush joked on at least three occasions, he and Vladimir Putin held the same dim view of democratic government:

"A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier, there's no question about it." (President George W. Bush, July 26, 2001.)
"If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator." (President-elect George W. Bush, December 18, 2000.)
"You don't get everything you want. A dictatorship would be a lot easier." (Texas Governor George W. Bush, July 1998.)

As we fast forward to the post-mortem of Obama's performance at last week's summit, Jeff Greenfield of CBS News summed up the furious Republican reaction to hints of a thaw in U.S. relations with Cuba and Venezuela:

"There is fallout from those people who already regard Obama as anything from a socialist to a fascist to a dangerously weak president. I'm talking about people on the right. If it doesn't spread beyond that, you're going to have the same situation where about 30% of the country really regards him negatively but the rest says 'so far so good."

Of course, that same 30% still loves George W. Bush because, perhaps, he knew how to read hearts and sense souls.
UPDATE: Despite Bush's past insistence that President Obama "deserves my silence," his vice president Dick Cheney weighed in on the Chavez dust up. America's foes, Cheney claimed, will "think they're dealing with a weak president or one who is not going to stand up and aggressively defend America's interests."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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