If Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal in recent years has been pitting American against American and fomenting distrust in once hardy democratic institutions, I’d say: “Mission Accomplished.”
And, yes, you can put that on an oversized banner on an aircraft carrier if you wish.
Here’s where we are after President Trump’s statements this month reflecting disdain for NATO and the European Union and siding with Russian President Putin’s assessments over those of U.S. intelligence agencies (though the president has vacillated wildly ever since, flip-flopping with stunning abandon): In Central Texas, one segment believes our president is an out-and-out traitor on par with Jane Fonda or at least equitable to infamous British appeaser-in-chief Neville Chamberlain. Another sticks by Trump because he “tells it like it is,” isn’t a politician and believes American interests at this juncture in history should exclude much concern over other countries representing Western civilization, notwithstanding how badly this approach worked out for the United States in the 1930s and ’40s.
When Republican Congressman Bill Flores, whose district includes Waco, released a statement of faith in the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that, yes, Russia really did meddle in U.S. elections in 2016, his constituents demonstrated the Great American Divide. To quote one constituent after Flores posted his statement on Facebook: “I’d trust Putin before I’d trust the DC establishment and the Deep State intelligence community. U.S. intelligence agency leaders have been caught lying and covering up their own past crimes and, like Congress, they have lost all credibility with the American people. Trump was elected president by the American people. U.S. intelligence leaders were not.” To which another responded: “So let me get this straight. You would believe an enemy of the United States over the American government agency tasked with defending America against cyberattacks by its enemies?”
We’ve seen the same polarizing sentiments in letters to the Trib, including this: “Please forgive me for being such an idiot. But what’s the difference between 12 Russian socialists trying to sway an American election and 12 liberal American media outlets trying to do the same thing?” And there’s the Waco businessman and lifelong Republican who confided to me his horror that fellow Republicans — consumed by talk radio and Fox News demagogues — now hate liberals so much they’re happy to employ groundless conspiracy theories and outrageous lies from Russian hackers and trolls if these serve to crush citizens with differing political principles.
In short, it’s all-out war on fellow Americans, not Russians.
One development makes all this more confounding for longtime Central Texans: Nearly 17 years ago, Russian President Putin was treated like a cherished ally during his historic visit to nearby Crawford with President George W. Bush, who hosted Putin at his neighboring ranch two months after the American home front was attacked by Islamic terrorists using commercial airliners as missiles. The highlight so far as the public was concerned: a Crawford High School assembly where Bush and Putin casually answered a few questions — some probing, some innocuous — from more than 200 students gathered in the gym. In weeks preceding the visit, school officials used daily announcements to educate students on Russia’s size, national colors and currency. Students also visited with Russian counterparts from Baylor University and other high schools.
“I wanted to bring President Putin to Crawford,” Bush told students, exchange students from Russia and U.S. and international press, all huddled alongside banners welcoming the presidential pair. “I wanted him to see a state that Laura and I love. I particularly wanted to be able to introduce him to the citizens of Crawford because this part of the state represents the independent-minded nature of Texans. It represents the hard-working Texans, people who have great values — faith and family. The people here, Mr. President, love their country, and they like countries that work with America to keep the peace.”
At one point, Bush told students how, in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attack, the first phone call he received from a foreign leader came from Putin, who told Bush that he noticed the president had placed U.S. military forces on alert: “In the old days when America put their troops on [alert], Russia would have responded and put her troops on alert, which would have caused the American president maybe to put a higher alert, and Russia a higher alert, and all of a sudden, we would have had two conflicts instead of one. But not this president. This president [Putin] recognized we’re entering into a new era and his call was, don’t worry, we know what you’re up against, we stand with you and we will not put our troops on alert, for the good of the United States of America.”
Putin was charming if coy. When a student in the front row inquired whether reducing nuclear weapons meant taking them off alert or dismantling warheads, Putin quipped he wasn’t sure if he was at a high school or NASA. “Looking at the questions of the 12th-graders, it comes to my mind that everything is fine with this nation and this school,” he said through an interpreter. At another point, he said Russia needed but one thing to develop properly: “We need normal standards, conditions and relations with all the leading economies of the world and primarily with the United States. And we have to get rid of the ideological barricades of the preceding decades. And the president is helping.”
Retired Crawford schools superintendent Kenneth Judy, now 71, recalls with humor that some student inquiries that day in the high school gym were fueled by extracurricular activities, particularly questions regarding missile defense, then a subject of contention between Bush and Putin: “We had a great debate team at the time and the question that year for all debate teams in Texas was on nuclear disarmament. And the student who asked that question about nuclear disarmament was a debate student and it was a legitimate question. Afterward [Bush press secretary] Ari Fleischer told our principal the students asked some questions they had never really thought about.”
For a lot of Central Texans, the spectacle was jarring but reassuring, given that the Cold War seemed to have ended under the administration of President Bush’s father and national sights were now fixed on Muslim radicals in the Middle East. At one point, Curtis Wiethorn, then a 50-year-old Valley Mills resident who delivered the Trib to the Bush ranch every morning by 5, recalled for the Trib how, as a high school student, he assumed he would face the Soviet Union if war ever came. Instead, on Nov. 15, 2001, Wiethorn watched Bush warmly introduce Putin to the next generation of Americans and brand the former KGB officer as a friend. “I was most impressed by the amount that the two presidents share in common, not only with their families and values but how much they show a desire to work together,” Wiethorn said at the time.
Swept up in the pride of having the so-called Western White House near town, Crawford residents got into the spirit. Shirley Westerfield pressed forward with a plan to display welcoming banners on fences along the nine-mile stretch of Farm-to-Market Road 185 connecting State Highway 6 to the town of Crawford, its population slightly more than 700 but growing as some people contemplated having Bush as a neighbor. Only a few displayed doubts about Putin. One of them, Crawford ISD business manager, Democrat and Bush neighbor Billy Lu “Boo” Lynch, declined to attend the spectacle at the high school. “I didn’t like Putin then and I don’t like him now,” Lynch, now 81, told me last week.
Russian reporters voiced astonishment at the town’s enthusiasm. One Russian journalist stopping by The Red Bull expressed surprise at a Russian flag made of wooden planks and displayed prominently. Bubbly gift-shop proprietor Jo Staton told Trib reporter Jason Embry that the Russian reporter said something to her in Russian: “The translator said, ‘We never expected this.’”
Then they asked where they could see a horse.
And Russian TV reporter Paul Lobkov, based in Moscow but often traveling the United States, explained the wisdom of Bush’s decision to bring Putin to Crawford, a farming community few noticed till Bush, as Texas governor, bought a 1,580-acre ranch just outside town in 1999: “Russians perceive America as New York City or Washington or Chicago, but 90 percent of America is like Crawford, Texas.”
Indeed, this was part of what, after the scalding 2016 election, would be known as “flyover country,” overlooked by seasoned political analysts and pivotal in catapulting Donald Trump into the White House. Trump, running as a Republican, won 87 percent of the Crawford area vote.
In 2001 the Tribune-Herald editorial board joined county residents in expressing hope in the international triumph in their midst: “Since Sept. 11, the Russians have shown themselves to be true allies in the fight against terrorism. In years past Soviet obstruction made it difficult for the United States to hold together broad-based alliances and to muster support in the United Nations Security Council. Welcome, President Putin, to Central Texas. Let this first visit to America be the first of many as two nations merge efforts for mankind’s betterment.”
“It was actually a very warm reception and a lot of people were very excited about it,” Wiethorn, 66, now mayor pro tem (and former mayor) of the nearby town of Valley Mills, recalled last week. “There was a lot of enthusiasm. Putin got up there and gave a really good talk. He basically sold himself. Of course, it just hasn’t turned out that way, but as far as that day went, there was a lot of excitement with people trying to get tickets to see that. It was quite the event.”
Wiethorn acknowledges wondering about the wisdom of Bush hosting a former KGB officer: “One of my thoughts, especially as I was delivering the paper, I kept thinking, ‘Well, here you got the leader of Russia who used to be a KGB agent. And when he was an agent, one of his goals, if he had been able, was to kill the president of the United States. And here he was in the same house with him.’ I thought if I’d been in that same house — well, I’m sleeping with one eye open all night! But Putin’s extremely smart. He’s able to get his way by a number of different means.”
History reveals that Bush senior advisors such as Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice didn’t share their boss’ optimism about Putin. According to Foreign Policy magazine, Cheney doubted Putin could so easily leave behind his KGB spy instincts from bygone Soviet days. And before his eight-year White House tenure was done in 2009, Bush himself had reasons to doubt Putin over everything from the latter’s suppression of political dissent in Russia to the August 2008 invasion of neighboring Georgia. In a Fox News interview this spring, Bush suggested the man in whose eyes he once discerned a “sense of his soul” instead had proven a “smart tactician” intent on reinstating “Soviet influence” wherever he could — and that the United States must deal forcefully with him.
“When I looked into his eyes and saw his soul, Russia was broke,” Bush said. “I mean, short-term broke. And the price of oil goes up and Putin changed.”
Yet Christopher Marsh, back in 2001 a Baylor political scientist who specialized in Russian politics and now a senior fellow with U.S. Special Operations Command, Joint Special Operations University, MacDill Air Force Base, says Putin may have been sincere in his outreach to President Bush months earlier. One never knows what truly beats in one’s heart, but Putin’s background offered interesting if conflicting suggestions about his motives.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm surrounding this personal relationship developing between George W. Bush and President Putin,” Marsh, 49, told me last week. “And Putin was the new guy on the block. We knew his background with the [Russian state security organization] FSB, but we didn’t know what kind of leader he would be. Now everyone goes back and says, ‘Oh, well, we knew it. We knew he was KGB all along.’ But they forget that he went to law school and studied under a guy named Anatoly Sobchak who became a reform leader [in St. Petersburg], so he actually had this promise of being a liberal for us.
“And both countries had terrorist activity going on — we had 9/11 and they had continuous terrorist activity going on in their own country, mostly involving Chechnya,” said Marsh, who participated in the Crawford summit (and even spoke with Putin briefly). “And Putin reached out to Bush in this fight against terrorism. They saw eye to eye and saw terrorism as a threat to their societies and wanted to work together. And it seemed at the time they really could work together.”
Marsh, however, believes that while Bush certainly had his reasons for later disillusionment, so did Putin. Russians marveled at the United States’ willingness to embark on wars unprovoked. Putin and other Russians also resented the aggressiveness with which NATO — in which the United States played a strong role — expanded its influence to the very borders of Russia. And while NATO was admittedly structured as a deterrent to the old Soviet Union, leaders in the new Russian republic nonetheless took this as a threat and gradually changed political course.
“I’m one of the people who think that history could have been rewritten had things gone differently,” Marsh said. “It was never a given that Putin would become the leader he is today, an authoritarian autocrat who rules with an iron fist. That wasn’t a given. Had we not extended NATO as much as we did, particularly into the Baltics [in 2004], had we not offered NATO membership to Georgia later and flirted with Ukraine with NATO membership, had we not invaded Iraq [in 2003], I think we would have had a different response on behalf of Putin.”
But if Bush, Putin and Russia have changed dramatically since 2001, so have Americans. Some now revel in new freedoms, emulating a leader who says everything and anything, true or not. They display inclinations and voice sentiments that, whether from political correctness or societal expectations, they once kept to themselves. Others readily acknowledge that, yes, they’re embarrassed by the president’s outbursts but nonetheless remain faithful regarding his policies and campaign promises. This includes Wiethorn, who says many unfairly underestimate President Trump, including in his Russian diplomacy.
“I’ve told several people that, from a businessman’s standpoint, when you’ve talked to [Putin] for two hours, you’ve talked about things of importance,” Mayor Pro Tem Wiethorn said of the explosive summit involving Putin and Trump. “And if you want something from him, especially with Putin being a Russian, if you go out there and just talk terrible about him, embarrass him in front of the world, you’re never going to get anything out of him. Even in business, you don’t insult the person that you’re trying to get something from.”
Marsh sees it differently: “You don’t throw your intelligence community under the bus and say you don’t agree with the intelligence. [President Trump’s] guys are in place and seeing what involvement the Russians had. There was certainly Russian involvement of various sorts in the U.S. election. U.S. intelligence has acknowledged that much. And then President Trump said essentially, ‘Hey, I talked to this guy and he says it wasn’t them, and I don’t see any reason why it would be.’
“What the hell was that? I don’t know. I just don’t have anything erudite to say about that.”
Today, whether you take State Highway 317 or Farm-to-Market Road 185 into Crawford, you’re greeted by a sun-bleached billboard of former president George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush welcoming you to town. The colors of the American flag on the billboards have faded. The town offers little evidence it was once epicenter of what was proudly labeled “Bush Country,” then percolating with tourists, press and, yes, protesters. Sharing space with athletic trophies in the Crawford High School display case in the lobby is an ornate Russian Gzhel vase presented to the school by President and Mrs. Putin. Retired superintendent Kenneth Judy recalls Bush later challenging visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair to do the Putins one better in terms of a ceremonial gift to the school.
Locals tell me Bush only infrequently comes into town, though he returns for Easter and the annual wounded warrior mountain-bike ride at his ranch. Meanwhile, Putin remains in power, sure evidence of the path Russia has taken. And this summer, aggravated by a president whose personal and political subsistence seems to depend on widening divisions among citizenry, Americans sparred and bickered and argued about the integrity of U.S. intelligence officials; possible complicity of the president in Russian-engineered election meddling; and how Russian efforts reportedly needed to sway only a tiny percent of the total number of U.S. votes to swing the 2016 presidential election.
“It’s a good time to reflect back on the 17 years because these really are parallel events,” Marsh said. “Now it’s President Trump looking eye to eye with President Putin and seeing the other person for who they are and having private meetings. There are a lot of parallels with what President Bush did with President Putin. I don’t think it’s going to lead to a major sea change in U.S.-Russian relations, though I would love to see that because I don’t think we’re on the proper path with Russia.
“I think we should have relations with Russia, but this is not the way to do it. You don’t just pretend that something didn’t happen that did happen. You call them out and respond in kind.”