Markov began to work with the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute -- a decade-long gig. He went to McFaul's wedding in California, where he -- unsuccessfully -- hit on another Russia scholar and friend of McFaul's, Condoleezza Rice. In 1994, McFaul and Markov helped found the Moscow Carnegie Center, which hosted regular discussions and seminars featuring a novel feature to draw an audience: free dinner. A few years later, Markov was pushed out of Carnegie because he was viewed as the propagandist of the second Chechen War. McFaul defended him and the two have remained friends to this day, "which can be kind of difficult at times," says a mutual friend who had been part of their crew in the 1990s. "The last time I was in Washington, I stayed with McFaul," Markov told me. "We debated vigorously."
But if McFaul is famous for his ability to befriend anyone, he is also famous for a hot, quick temper (as the redhead from NTV can well attest). At one academic conference, McFaul got into a long, full-throated throwdown with Stephen Kotkin, the famous Soviet historian, because he had criticized McFaul's 2008 essay in Foreign Affairs, co-authored with Stoner-Weiss, his Stanford colleague, and called "The Myth of the Authoritarian Model: How Putin's Crackdown Holds Russia Back." (Someone from the Kremlin called the two authors to tell them, "Mr. Putin has read the article, and it was not entirely to his liking.") But McFaul's views on Russia escape easy categorization. He seems to dish it out on a purely egalitarian basis. Former Bush administration official David Kramer, who runs Freedom House, an organization known for its very anti-Kremlin views, frequently squabbles with his old friend McFaul. "I've gotten some very long emails from him after I've written some things," Kramer told me. "And, yes, it had some colorful language sprinkled in."
And yet, McFaul has been able to hop between the lily pads of academia, politics, and journalism. After a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, he stayed on to complete a DPhil, the rough British equivalent of a Ph.D. This put him at odds with many in the political science community in the United States, where the methods rely less on local knowledge -- as per the British model -- but on computation and a strict methodology. "He kicked the door open into the American system in a way I haven't seen," says Stoner-Weiss. "Look at how many DPhils you see at elite American universities. There aren't that many. And the fact that he got tenure without doing hi-tech methodology tells you how good he was." (McFaul puts it this way: "I went to Oxford so I'm considered a Neanderthal.")
If he was able to win over the gray beards of the academy with his mastery of the subject, he was also the friend of every Western journalist covering Russia, past and present. Sometimes he managed to beat journalists at their own game. In 1996, when Boris Yeltsin was facing an uncertain election, the hardliners around him -- Alexander Korzhakov and Oleg Soskovets -- were at times encouraging the sick old man to stall the election or call it off entirely. "They didn't talk to Western correspondents much, and we never knew what they were up to, or thinking, " recalls David Hoffman, Washington Post bureau chief in Moscow during the 1990s. McFaul, meanwhile, had no problem penetrating the barrier: Once, Korzhakov and Soskovets even brought him back to one of their dachas to drink and talk politics. "I was terribly jealous," Hoffman says. "I also wanted to meet with these guys. They sent an official Volga for him!" Hoffman's jealousy subsided when he found out the reason for the Yeltsin crew's hospitality. They had thought McFaul was CIA.
McFaul's entry into politics came in the run-up to the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. Long at home in policy circles in Washington, he had become a foreign-policy advisor to John Edwards, who was running against Obama in the primaries. (Edwards later flamed out in scandal, admitting he fathered a child with a campaign staffer while his wife was dying of cancer, and McFaul now tries to downplay their relationship.) Then he switched to Obama. With the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008, McFaul's share of Obama's attention span grew. He was able to convince the president-to-be that repairing the Russian-American relationship would be a great opportunity to set the new administration apart from that of George W. Bush. It would be another way to improve America's image on the international stage, an image Bush had done so much to mangle.
McFaul relished the role of advisor, joining the White House staff as a senior director on the National Security Council. He became simply "McFaul" to Obama. In his office in Washington, in the Old Executive Office Building, he had a poster of a New Republic magazine cover that showed Obama's first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, leaning over Obama's desk in the Oval Office. Once, when I visited McFaul there, he explained it to me: The illustration had actually been based on a picture of him, but the designers at the magazine swapped Emanuel's head for his. McFaul loved to talk about his experiences negotiating with the Russians, about accompanying the president to summits, about getting to know the Russian mucketymucks and to rub elbows with them. He loved participating in an historical process and gathering anecdotes along the way: He can tell a long story about how the "burger summit" between Obama and Medvedev happened, and how Vice President Joseph Biden got on the phone and boxed Saakashvili's ears after Georgian state television led an evening newscast with a fake Russian invasion.
But by 2011, his family was itching to return to Stanford. When McFaul broke the news to Obama, the president offered to make him ambassador -- a strange move, given how much the Russians loved then ambassador and Russophile John Beyrle. But Obama was keen to keep McFaul: As his domestic agenda ran up against an intransigent and radicalized Congress -- which majorly delayed McFaul's confirmation -- and American policy in Middle East went up in flames, Russia was one of the few major successes that Obama could point to.