Standing Up to the Russians: Return of A Presidential Narrative

In my graduate narratives course, our narrative-of-the-week feature has frequently looked at how journalists incorporate narratives at the start of their articles to capture the reader’s attention. This is an alternative to the standard inverted pyramid model that involves summarizing the entire story in the first paragraph. My guess is that roughly 80 percent of articles use the inverted pyramid model but 20 percent employ the narrative approach.

This week’s narrative of the week – an article in the New York Times about Barack Obama’s arms control negotiations with the Russians – dovetailed perfectly with the theme of the class – the Cuban Missile Crisis as portrayed in the movie Thirteen Days.

Peter Baker’s article, entitled “Twists and Turns on Way to Arms Pact with Russia” appeared in the New York Times on Saturday, March 27. A narrative about the four month long process of negotiation began with its most dramatic episode, an impasse that so angered President Obama that he was willing to walk away without a deal.

In its second paragraph, the article directly quoted Obama’s words, “Dmitri, we agreed. We can’t do this. If it means we’re going to walk away from this treaty and not get it done, so be it. But we’re not going down this path.” It’s rare to see a President’s exact words in a confidential negotiation quoted, and I think it’s a certainty that the unnamed advisers who provided his words were those at the highest level: Rahm Emanuel and/or David Axelrod. What was the point they were trying to make?

Even though the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union was dissolved two decades ago, Russia maintains its nuclear arsenal and many Americans still remember living under the specter of nuclear war.

Thus, one of the criteria by which Americans measure the mettle of a president is whether he has the strength to stand up to the Russians. Baker’s article draws on that expectation, contrasting President Obama’s resolve to “forge a new relationship with Russia, starting with a treaty to slash nuclear arsenals” with the observation that “for a year Russia had been testing him, suspecting he was weak and certain it could roll over him.”

Obama’s advisers wanted to tell the inside story of the negotiation process to demonstrate that he wasn’t weak and that the Russians didn’t roll over him. The phone call quoted at the start of the article was one instance. The article also mentioned that, despite his focus on health care reform, Obama found the time to closely supervise these negotiations. As proof, it added that he had 14 telephone calls or meetings with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.

This demonstration of presidential engagement was likely intended to forestall the political right’s long-standing criticism of Democratic presidents as being soft on communism. But perhaps the world has changed somewhat. The Times ran the story on page 4 in the news section, rather than beginning it on the front page. And the right seems to have ignored this arms control agreement, continuing to focus its attacks on health insurance.

Finally, the article had one historical echo that some readers may have caught. In the classic satire Doctor Strangelove, the Russian Premier with whom the American President Merkin Muffley has a telephone conversation was named Dmitri. In that case, the fictional President was trying to coax his inebriated Russian counterpart to respond to the threat of American bombers carrying nuclear weapons turned loose by a rogue air base commander. When reading the article, I couldn’t help but hear comedian Peter Sellers voice, who played the American president, intoning “Dmitri, we have a little problem.”

Indeed the world has greatly changed since the mid-Sixties, but the presidential narrative of firmness towards the Russians still remains deeply embedded in the American psyche. And President Obama, and his advisers, were trying to demonstrate that his actions were consistent with that narrative.

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