Bob Neal

The photo Wednesday in The New York Times of Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, and Xi Jinping, president of China, toasting each other reminded me of the cat and the canary.

You needn’t look hard to figure that the Chinese cat had just eaten the Russian canary and was washing down his conquest. The toast was likely to their partnership in resisting the “decadent” West. But they appear to be toasting with decadent western, likely French, champagne in decadent western glasses, perhaps from Austria or Switzerland.

Putin looked both diminished and grateful. He won’t dominate the world, but Xi may have saved Putin’s grip on Russia. Is that the beginning of a smirk on Xi’s face?

As our March Madness marches on to determine who is No. 1 in women’s and in men’s college basketball, we know that only one can be No. 1. (I won’t be stunned if UConn takes the women’s title. Anyone but ‘Bama for the men, based on my distaste for putting winning above morality.)

In his attempt to hold on to power, a year and 30 days after his unthought-out invasion of Ukraine, Putin has accepted being second banana to Xi in the world of tough-guy dictators.

Not that second is a terrible spot in a jungle so dense as world politics. In fact, my point is that the second person, who is almost always male, can be at least as important as the first.


Let’s look at two examples.

The Soviet Union likely wouldn’t have lasted 74 years if Vladimir Lenin hadn’t died young (53) and Joseph Stalin hadn’t replaced him in 1924. To Lenin, diversity in the Communist Party and a federation of Communist states were OK. To Stalin, diversity and federation weren’t OK.

Stalin killed 6 million people, and his policies — such as hard labor for opponents, many of whom had been allies or aides — led to the deaths of at least 3 million more. Stalin was second man in.

According to the History Channel, Lenin was thought too soft to establish a Communist state. True, Lenin killed opponents, but never on the scale of Stalin. Stalin’s method was simple. Terror.

The part I can’t figure is the number of underlings who willingly carried out his orders knowing Stalin’s penchant for turning on and wiping out his subordinates. How many of his former aides muttered under their breath, “What was I thinking” as the firing squad shouldered the rifles?

In the USSR No. 2 succeeded No. 1. But in Communist China No. 1 and No. 2 worked together, sorta. Mao Zedong, party chairman, made policy, and Zhou Enlai, premier, applied it.


Both Mao and Zhou died in 1976, and the whole system needed new leaders. Though they ruled together, they didn’t always work together. When Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966, Zhou managed to curb some of the excesses of Mao’s Red Guards.

More important, though, is Zhou’s legacy. As a moderate — he was called the balance wheel to Mao’s stridence — he paved the way for China to move to a market economy.

I emphasize that, while many of us have been accustomed to Communist regimes for all or most of our lives, in the sweep of history the USSR was short, and China as a fully communist regime shorter. Neither even vaguely approached our longevity as a democracy.

I see this pattern of the importance of the second person in many walks of life.

Folks who study business could cite the succession of Henry Ford II as head of the Ford Motor Co., building on his grandfather’s success. Second man in kept Ford from fading into obscurity.

In medicine we have two examples. Smallpox killed more people even than Stalin. The ancient practice of variolation — begun in Asia and Africa — consisted of transferring to healthy people small doses from smallpox sores, leading to milder forms of illness and lower mortality.


But it took the second people in to develop the vaccine that eliminated smallpox, Lady Mary Worthley Montagu and Edward Jenner, both British. She saw the practice at work in Turkey, took it back to England, and Jenner performed the first trials, using cowpox as a much less deadly source of vaccine. Second person (and first woman) in. And third.

We have an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19, pioneered by Dr. Katalin Kariko at the University of Pennsylvania, though the actual inventor’s name is in doubt. She is at worst the second person in. Now work is underway to extend mRNA to a vaccine for all coronavirus. Looking for the second (or third) person in.

Back to politics. Harry S. Truman asked reporters to pray for him the day he succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt as president. If they did, it worked. History judges Truman favorably. He ordered integration of our military and backed creation of the state of Israel, a landmark event even if today’s Israeli leaders seem bent on destroying the Mideast’s only democracy. Second person in.

If President Biden is Barack Obama’s second man in, we can ask, “Who becomes Donald Trump’s second man in, and will he come to power?”

Stay tuned.

How the Putin-Xi deal works out won’t be known for years. March Madness’s sweet 16 hadn’t begun when Bob Neal wrote this. His tourney picks may have already egged his face. Neal can be reached at

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