“I don’t think that guy is going to be reelected,” a university professor confided in me one autumn day in the last years of the ’00s. “He’s just too arrogant. Estonians want their president to be a man of the people.”
It’s true that when people criticize Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, they immediately seize upon the ‘a’ word: arrogant. But what they forget is that arrogance is one of the defining traits of the Estonian people. No matter which one of them you get in Kadriorg, he (or she) is likely to be arrogant. And so I didn’t take my professor’s prediction too seriously. If anything, most Estonians relish their leaders’ arrogance. They like a leader who acts like he knows what he’s doing.
And then there was the matter of Ilves’ trademark bow tie, which some took as comedy and others as treachery. I recall a blog post criticizing Ilves for wearing a blue and yellow tie during a meeting with Swedish counterparts. Heresy! Treason! Vanity! There it is, the ‘v’ word. And it’s also very Estonian. Just as they are an arrogant people, the Estonians are utterly vain. They buy tabloids in vast quantities just to read up on the personal lives of people who are famous only because they have been featured in said tabloids. They change their Facebook profile photos every fortnight. The vain president, the vain first lady, the vain businessman, the vain athlete, the vain model, the vain author, the vain chocolatier. Read all about it! What do all these Estonians have in common? The ‘v’ word.
So, like all other Estonians, Ilves is perceived as arrogant and vain. But he is also a smarty pants. When they say “US educated,” they don’t mean that he sold crack outside of PS 21 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. This gentleman was valedictorian of his high school class, got a bachelor’s at Columbia, and then his master’s at the University of Pennsylvania. And his son went to Stanford! Jeesus, the Ilveses are smart people. They are of brainy stock. While being a nerd might get you humiliated in junior high school, it tends to work to your advantage when consulting with other world leaders. Drop in a forgotten quote from a Greek philosopher here, construct meaning out of a random historical fact that no one remembers there. Watch the jaws drop. Suddenly, you’re the person humiliating the others. And it feels great.
Lyndon Johnson used body language to get his way. The long, tall Texan would lean in, enveloping the individual he wished to persuade with his presence, his face a millimeter away from his target, suffocating his victim with “supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint and the hint of threat,” his eyebrows moving up and down, until the errant senator or congressman caved in and agreed to vote Johnson’s way. They called it the “Johnson Treatment.” The “Ilves Treatment” is to be made to feel as if you never attended a day of school in your life.
Indrek Tarand, Ilves’ opponent in the presidential election embodied many of these characteristics. Tarand is known as the man who ran an advertisement in Eesti Ekspress upon his university graduation in 1991, “Indrek Tarand lõpetab ülikooli, kõik pakkumised oodatud”/ “Indrek Tarand is finishing university, awaits all offers.” Even the arrogant and vain Estonians were bowled over by that move. And that’s really all you need to know about Indrek Tarand. His successful campaign for European Parliament was taken right out of The Candidate, with Tarand cast as Robert Redford’s Bill McKay, a gum chewing, bluntly honest novice who isn’t afraid to lose and yet somehow manages to beat the establishment. Ilves’ has his bow tie, Tarand has his cool shades. Therein lies the difference.
I was on the same flight with Tarand, a plane ride to Copenhagen in June. When I saw him, I stared at him a bit, as if he were an old friend. Then I recalled that I only knew him from the tabloids. When he caught me looking at him, Tarand winked at me. I wondered if he recognized me from the tabloids. We sat across from each other but didn’t say a word. But all the time up in the air over the blue Baltic Sea I felt that we had something in common. We had both sold our souls to Estonia. I wonder sometimes if President Ilves feels that way too when he’s jetting around the world.
In the end Ilves defeated Tarand, receiving 73 votes to his 25 in parliament. It was the first time since 1991 that an Estonian president had been selected in the first round, a sign of “political maturity,” Ilves said approvingly. It was probably best that both men kept their day jobs, Ilves in Kadriorg, Tarand in Brussels. These Estonians know how to promote themselves and how to promote their country. They stand out, they look good, they find wise or witty things to say. And, most importantly, they act like they know what they are doing.