Pretend for a moment that you are a highly visible Republican Congressman needing to get the Russians to come to the table to discuss items of mutual national interest.
Who would you call to set up some overseas meetings? The State Department? U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul? George Shultz, Casper Weinberger, or someone else from the Reagan administration that was on hand during those heady Glasnost years?
No, apparently you need to go through Steven Seagal.
According to the AP, Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher and Steven King used the (really, really terrible) action movie actor to set up key meetings with key Russian officials in order to share intelligence regarding Bobston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Why Steven Seagal, you ask? It turns out that meeting with Russian bigwigs like Vladimir Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov is just one of those things Seagal does in his spare time:
Seagal, who attended the news conference in the U.S. Embassy, is well connected in Russia. He met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in March, and last week paid a visit to Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman who rules Chechnya, a province in southern Russia that has seen two brutal wars between federal troops and Chechen separatists since 1994….
The action movie star escorted the congressmen on a trip Saturday to the site of a terrorist attack in the Caucasus town of Beslan, where militants seized a school in 2004 and took more than 1,000 people hostage, most of them children. More than 330 hostages died, most of them when federal troops stormed the school.
How weird is that? If it weren’t for the fact that these meetings actually seem to have happened and are being reported as having been set up by Seagal, I would have assumed it to be yet another self-created Seagal myth. And maybe it still is. Seagal is one of those guys that pops up on my radar screen every so often, and each time he does it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s something of a huckster.
Like most Americans, I first became aware of Seagal when Under Siege became an unexpected box office smash. (It’s Die Hard on a boat!) Unlike other action stars of that same era, Seagal never was quite able to muster up a string of hits. Under Siege’s success notwithstanding, he was essentially a direct-to-video star – more in mold of a Jean-Claude Van Damme or Dolph Lungren than a Stallone, Willis or Schwarzenegger. At the crest of his brief stardom he became, I believe, the only person ever to be banned from Saturday Night Live for being a terrible actor/performer. (Which, when you think of all the people who have hosted SNL over the years, is really saying something.) And yet despite his rapid descent into “Hey, Remember That Guy?” status, he kept resurfacing in really interesting ways every few years.
In 1999 I purchased a GQ at the airport for a little light airline reading, and was introduced to the amazing essayist David Rakoff through his fabulous piece on Seagal, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha! Through Rakoff, I learned that Seagal had parlayed his fame as a martial arts video star into a gig as a New Age guru. And not just any new age guru, but one who passed himself off as an ex-CIA operative who was now recognized as a tulku (incarnate lama from a past life) by the “head” of Tibetan Buddhism. That neither Tibet nor the CIA seemed to be aware of this deterred either Seagal or his fans too much:
For his part, Seagal frames his involvement with Tibet in much the same way that he has described his past possible involvements with international intelligence and the CIA—semishrouded, covert and intrinsically unknowable. “I was in a monastery in Kyoto,” he tells us, “and met some monks from Tibet who had been tortured by the Chinese. As I was the only one who had studied herbology, bone manipulation and acupuncture, I treated them, and there was an immediate connection.”
One day you’re a simple bone manipulator, the next you’re teaching torture victims how to get centered. It’s a familiar trajectory: You almost can’t swing a reincarnated cat without hitting someone who’s followed this path. The audience seems unbothered by the unverifiability of Seagal’s explanation. Most nod with appreciative understanding, some closing their eyes and smiling, savoring the moment like a divine chocolate.
As the years went by, other stories about Seagal would occasionally float by my field of vision:
In 2005 he began to market his own line of Steven Seagal homeopathic oils. [Side Note: Has there ever been a more snake-oily product sold than homeopathic oils? It might actually be snake-oilier than actual snake oil.] A year later, he launched Lightning Bolt, an energy drink advertised to be the first ever to be made with Asian cordyceps. Because of this ingredient, claimed Seagal, the soft-drink would not only give you “pure” energy, it would boost your immune system, reduce your blood pressure and improve your liver functions.
Around the same time, Seagal released Songs From the Crystal Cave, a heavily-produced blues-rock album made with a group of session musicians. Seagal claims to have been taught the blues by a list of personal mentors who took him under their wing, and the bluesmen on the list are nothing to sneeze at: B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. But music hasn’t kept him from keeping up his fighting skills: Seagal takes credit for a great deal of UFC’s success, having said that his personal training is behind many of that sport’s champions. (If there are interviews where King, Hooker, Brown, Diddley or these “many UFC champions” acknowledging these symbiotic relationships, they seem to be Google-proof.)
In 2009, Seagal starred in Steven Seagal: Lawman, a reality TV show produced for A&E. Seagal and the producers of Lawman note that in addition to his CIA, movie and reincarnated monk work, in years past Seagal graduated from the Los Angeles police academy and holds a certificate from POST, the organization that accredits California police officers. However, there is no record of him having done either. The series was suspended when Seagal was sued for sexual trafficking and harassment. (That case appears to have been settled out of court, although neither parties will confirm this.)
More recently, Seagal has managed to parlay his fictional lawman past into high-profile consulting gigs. In February of this year, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (himself a bit of a self-promoter) hired Seagal to train a posse of volunteers to take out crazed gunmen and terrorists in Phoenix public schools. Capitalizing on the recent tragedy in Newton, Connecticut school shootings, the training seemed to largely be a publicity stunt. (Among the posse members was Lou Ferrigno of TV’s The Hulk.) In addition to training the posse on the proper use of firearms, Seagal was also paid to teach them how to take out the crazed and/or terrorist gunmen with “marital arts.”
Arpaio’s hiring of Seagal may sound a bit out of the blue, but in fact the two have a relationship. Last fall Seagal endorsed Arpaio’s reelection bid, and in 2011 Arpaio raided a Phoenix illegal cockfight with Seagal as the action star rode atop a tank. No, you read that correctly – the one-man chicken farm was raided by Steven Seagal on a tank.
And now, on top of everything else, Steven Seagal is a man who opens doors in Russia.
I find myself wondering, however, just how much of what we’re reading in the Associated Press will end up being debunked when all is said and done. After all, in the past the press has credulously identified Seagal as an ex-CIA operative, an ex-LA policeman, a weapons and tactics expert, and a recognized reincarnation of the lama by the country of Tibet. Joe Arpaio has shown that a politician that caters to a certain demographic can make use of both Seagal’s cynical opportunism and fan base. Is it really such a stretch to imagine that Rohrabacher and King – two politicians who cater to a similar crowd as Arpaio and who have a history with fabulous storytelling – would be willing to do the same thing?
And it’s not too hard to theorize why the Russians might go along with the charade. After all, Seagal, Rohrabacher and King have given good, positive-spin publicity to two of Russia’s biggest PR headaches in the US and Eurpoean press.
Most everyone outside of Russia who wrote about the Pussy Riot jailing were highly critical of Putin. (Including, most notably to my mind, our own Burt Likko.) Rohrabacher and King were more than happy to exchange political cover in the States for access:
Rohrabacher and King were full of praise for Russian Orthodox Christian traditions after attending a service at Moscow’s main cathedral on Sunday morning. The cathedral became a rallying point for Putin supporters and the opposition alike last year when punk group Pussy Riot staged an impromptu protest against Putin’s merging of church and state, earning them worldwide notoriety and a two-year prison sentence for “hooliganism.”
“It’s hard to find sympathy for people who would do that to people’s faith,” King said.
In fact, you could go so far as to say that uber-conservative hawks Rohrabacher and King have suddenly become pretty pro-Russia, saying that the US and European criticisms of Putin are “sinister.”
Likewise, the congressmen are giving cover to Seagal’s supposed pal and Chechnya boss Kadyrov, who up until now has been portrayed in foreign press as a bit of a monster:
The Kremlin has given Kadyrov lavish funding and political carte blanche to fight terrorism since he came to power in 2005. Activists accuse him and his feared security forces of staggering abuses, including torture, kidnappings and murder.
“All these accusations are thrown around,” said Seagal, who was given a lavish welcome in Kadyrov’s palace. “Is there any evidence? Has he been indicted?”
So what’s the real story here? Has Steven Seagal finally had one of his outlandish, publicity-seeking claims pan out – is he really what the the most powerful nation on Earth needed to open doors overseas? Or did he simply bamboozle a gaggle of highly visible congress-critters into getting top billing for just showing up and being allowed at the buffet? Or are those same congress-critters shrewder than that, and were they knowingly using Seagal’s self-made mythology for their own cynical ends?
Regardless of the truth behind where Seagal’s usefulness really lies, it’s a fascinating story and one worthy of the Seagal mystique.
 I should probably also note that this delegation also travelled with Michele Bachmann, of all people. However, since she did not appear publicly and has not yet issued any public statements on the trip to Russia I’m relegating that interesting factoid to down here in the footnotes.
Photo by thisgig