Joe Biden and George W. Bush Disagree on the Matter of Putin’s Soul

Photo: Pool/Getty Images, Alexei Nikolsky/Getty Images

Just after his first introduction to Vladimir Putin in 2001, then brand-new President George W. Bush memorably announced that, by looking into his Russian counterpart’s eyes, he had managed “to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.” But, ten years later, Vice President Joe Biden visited Putin and determined that Bush must have been hallucinating or something.

Biden recalled the 2011 episode in a new New Yorker profile:

I had an interpreter, and when [Putin] was showing me his office I said, ‘It’s amazing what capitalism will do, won’t it? A magnificent office!’ And he laughed. As I turned, I was this close to him.” Biden held his hand a few inches from his nose. “I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.’

“You said that?” I asked. It sounded like a movie line.

“Absolutely, positively,” Biden said, and continued, “And he looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, ‘We understand one another.’ ” Biden sat back, and said, “This is who this guy is!”

So, is Putin soulless? Or is his soul just kind of pointy and bruise-colored, as Bush’s recent portrait of him suggests? Maybe he had a soul in 2001 but lost it over the course of a decade? It’s hard to judge this based on Biden and Bush’s dueling statements, since politicians — even twinkly eyed ones like our current vice-president — are not generally considered to be authorities on the matter of human souls. Guess we’ll just have to look at Putin extra hard the next time he publicly addresses the situation in Ukraine.

Biden and W. Disagree on Putin’s Soul