WASHINGTON (Reuters) - One half of the old “Boris and Bill Show” departed the world stage on Monday with the death of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, leaving former President Bill Clinton with some vivid memories.
“Fate gave him a tough time in which to govern, but history will be kind to him because he was courageous and steadfast on the big issues — peace, freedom, and progress,” Clinton said in a statement.
The two leaders, physically imposing and emotionally demonstrative, both rose from humble, small-town beginnings and immediately developed a close personal relationship.
They held sway in the 1990s with a series of high-profile meetings across the globe as the Clinton White House tried to help steer Moscow’s transition to democracy after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Boris and Bill met more than 15 times, starting in Vancouver in 1993 and continuing until 2000 when Clinton made his final trip to Moscow as president to see Yeltsin’s newly empowered successor, Vladimir Putin.
Their relationship was often stormy as Yeltsin, who presided over the dissolution of the Soviet Union and sought to maintain Russia’s status as a superpower, clashed with Clinton and other Western leaders on plans to enlarge NATO and other policies.
But quite often, at joint news conferences, Yeltsin would say something that would prompt uncontrollable laughter from the typically wonkish Clinton.
Clinton said in a statement issued from his New York office on Monday that he was saddened to lose a friend “who gave us unforgettable memories both funny and profound.”
“We didn’t always agree, but I tried to support him in his work and each time we spoke, I was struck by two things: his devotion to his country and its people, and his willingness to look at the facts and make a tough decision he thought was in Russia’s long-term interest,” Clinton said.
Clinton aides were never quite sure which Yeltsin would show up for their meetings — the backslapping, good-natured Yeltsin or the angry, red-faced Yeltsin.
Often it would be a combination of both, and they tried to keep an eye on how much alcohol Yeltsin was drinking. Quite often it was a great deal of booze.
“We can’t ever forget that Yeltsin drunk is better than most of the alternatives sober,” Clinton once said, former deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott wrote in a book about Clinton’s foreign policy, “The Russia Hand.”
Talbott wrote that Clinton had seen Yeltsin in various roles — “snarling bear and papa bear, bully and sentimentalist, spoiler and dealmaker. He knew from experience that a session with Yeltsin almost always involved some roughing up before the two of them could get down to real business.”
Talbott’s vivid account of the last Boris and Bill meeting in Moscow, as described in The Washington Post Magazine in May 2002, said Yeltsin gave Clinton one last browbeating, that Russia would resist pressure to acquiesce in any U.S. policy that would be seen as a threat to Russian security.
Clinton always indulged Yeltsin, taking his verbal swipes good-naturedly, and ended the meeting with some advice to keep on eye on Putin, Talbott wrote.
“Boris,” Clinton told him as the Russian clutched him by the hand and leaned in, “you’ve got democracy in your heart. You’ve got the trust of the people in your bones. You’ve got the fire in your belly of a real democrat and a real reformer. I’m not sure Putin has that. Maybe he does. I don’t know. You’ll have to keep an eye on him and use your influence to make sure that he stays on the right path. Putin needs you.”