Summit Secrets: Putin's P.R. Machine and Clinton's Birdie

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Music to His Ears

President Clinton finished his eight-day European swing on a high note in the Ukraine Monday: an early-evening speech before tens of thousands of young people in the huge square in front of Kiev's newly reconstructed St. Michael's monastery. It was the first time on the trip that the President got to plunge into a big rope line of enthusiastic locals, a ritual that Clinton relishes even more than most politicians. But it was when he was about to leave that he showed his political instincts were not dulled by the lateness of the hour or the exhaustion of a grueling trip. After he got into his limousine, he was informed that the symphony orchestra in the square (which was there to play the two national anthems) had boarded a train in Odessa at 6 in the morning in order to make the gig. Even though his weary staff was aching to move on, the Commander in Chief bounded out of the limo and went over to greet the orchestra members, who responded with a medley of American tunes, including "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

Putin's P.R. Savvy

Although he's been in office only a couple of months, it turns out that Russian president Vladimir Putin has already picked up on one of the black arts of democratic politicians — public relations. Much more so than the handlers surrounding Boris Yeltsin, Putin's people worry about the images that go out to the Russian public. And so, before Sunday's joint press conference with Clinton, his staff went to a lot of trouble to arrange that the two men would walk together down a long, well-lighted corridor — much as Clinton is shown walking down the red-carpeted hall into his East Room press conferences — and positioned TV cameras and photographers to get the shot. One hitch, however: As the two men started their walk, and aides prepared to open the huge golden doors leading into the magnificent St. George's Hall in the Grand Kremlin Palace, the two leaders started making small talk. Bad move. That brought the interpreters scurrying in from the sidelines, ruining the visuals. The doors couldn't be opened until they'd retreated out of the scene.

Stalin Spin

Those Kremlin flacks have also learned damage control. On Sunday afternoon, Putin wanted to take Clinton on a walk of the Kremlin grounds to show him the area where they honor the winners of the Soviet Prize, the highest honor the Soviet Union gave after World War II. Eisenhower was awarded it. The bad news: So was Stalin. White House aides were therefore a little nervous, but consented because Putin really wanted to do it. Although the walkabout was outdoors, only the two official photographers were permitted to record the visit, so the two governments could control what pictures were released. Later, Putin's press secretary approached his White House counterpart, Joe Lockhart, with an important request: no pictures of Putin in front of the plaque of Stalin. Lockhart thought for about a nanosecond, then said, "Oh, OK."

It's the Economy, Comrade

On the surface, it's hard to imagine two more different leaders than presidents Clinton and Putin: Clinton the glad-handing career politician always trying to find accommodation, Putin the taciturn former KGB agent who faced his first election this year and based his campaign on his brutal repression in Chechnya. But on another level, there are important similarities. Both are smart, pragmatic and non-ideological, and have a gift for reading people. In Putin's case, says one Moscow hand, "He got to where he is by telling people what they want to hear." Both also understand that if they don't get the economics right, nothing else is really possible. However, administration insiders are still not sure about the new president's methods. Although the White House was encouraged by Putin's apparent willingness to keep talking about anti-missile defense and other thorny matters, they admit, "We still don't know if he's a democrat. We didn't know at first with Yeltsin either, but with him, his hatred of the Communists was personal. With Putin, it will probably be a more calculated decision that democracy works better." Let's hope.

Tee Time

President Clinton is notorious among the press corps for packing his schedule on foreign trips and running reporters ragged — not to mention himself. For a change, his staff this time opted to ease up the pace — though by normal standards it was still a forced march of four countries in eight days, from one end of Europe to the other. For instance, they scheduled a golf game in Lisbon early in the trip, on the second day. (That had the added advantage of putting the President in a good mood when he got to the green on his second shot on two par-five holes.) Good thing, too, because the upcoming schedule looks even more grueling. After landing close to midnight Monday after the long flight from Kiev, Clinton meets with King Abdullah of Jordan Tuesday, then flies the 15 hours to Japan Wednesday to attend a memorial service for Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, and immediately returns (total time on the ground: six hours) in time to fly to Minnesota to give the commencement speech at Carleton College. Are Gore and Bush really sure they want this job?