Few people ever get the chance to visit The White House. Even fewer people visit it as “statesmen”. Becoming a head of state is hard enough. To then secure a meeting with the most powerful man in the world, is a feat of no small significance. Shaking hands with the President of the free world, taking a seat in the glittering Oval Office, and having cameras follow you from every direction, the occasion lends itself to much fanfare and watchful eyes. The last thing on any visiting leader’s agenda is to bungle up such an ornate procession…
The last thing on anyone’s agenda, unless your name is Boris Yeltsin. And you happen to be visiting the White House as the President of the Russian Federation. Because, when the leader of Russia paid a visit to his American counterpart in 1994, Bill Clinton, he ended up doing a little more than just that. One evening during his stay, he was found taking a cheeky stroll outside the White House. But, there was a problem. A big problem, in fact.
Yes, he was most certainly binning his assiduously organized itinerary. A crime enough, according to the diplomat’s playbook. But, worse, he was uncovered, unclothed, and intoxicated. In other words, he was caught naked and drunk-to-his-eyeballs, roaming outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and trying to hail a taxi. When asked by the guards where on earth he was off to, he said he wanted to grab some “pizza”.
Now, a lot has happened between the US and Russia. Diplomatic spats, sanctions, stand-offs, some impolite bickering between their leaders… the US-Russia relationship has much baggage to contend with. Every US President from the Cold War and beyond has had their fair share of ups and downs when dealing with the Russians. But when it came to Bill Clinton, things had never been more laughable. One can only wonder how Bill reacted upon hearing this. Was he surprised? Or could he relate to the urge to drink hard as a President… and shrug it off?
According to The Clinton Tapes, a book written by journalist Taylor Branch, it looks like Clinton wasn’t hugely bothered. Branch was a journalist who managed to secure some interviews with the President, which helped him to write the book which he released in 2009. In one of the interviews, he asked Bill how the incident turned out.
“Well, he got his pizza”, replied Bill, rather unbothered by the question. But it was what he said next, that as he recalls, sent the alarm bells ringing a little louder. The next evening, Clinton reported that he tried to do it again. But, this time, as he was making his way out of Blair House (where visitors usually stay), the guards mistook him for an intruder. Had the Russian guards not jumped in to explain the situation, things could have gotten a little awry. According to the author, this incident sparked more concern in Clinton’s head than did the Pizza trip. Since one could easily imagine it boiling into a diplomatic row had the agents of both nations not worked it out.
The stories quickly took a turn for the bizarre and riveting, as if they weren’t already strange enough. One evening, Clinton received a call from a drunken Yeltsin, asking him to hold a secret meeting on some “submarine” or something. Whether that meeting happened or not is a mystery, but nonetheless, it appears that Clinton eventually came to terms with Yeltsin’s unusual behavior. On the outset, at least, both appeared like best buddies, united in their mischief and unquenchable hedonism.
At times, Clinton even tried to cover up how drunk Yeltsin was, in order to stave off any further embarrassment for him. During the same Trainwreck of a trip in 1994, Clinton and Yeltsin appeared at a press conference. The latter was predictably drunk on truckloads of Vodka, though, and in a drunken outburst, he randomly called the press a “disaster”. Upon hearing that, Clinton burst out laughing, more than he had ever laughed under the camera’s gaze. Initially, the camera crews thought that Clinton simply found it funny. The former deputy secretary of state, however, suggested that his bout of laughter was a deliberate attempt to cover up for how drunk his Russian buddy was. But what was clear, was that these two playful clowns were hitting it off very well. Yeltsin’s alcoholism was nothing more than a laughing matter in the White House.
Eventually, Yeltsin returned back to Moscow but was continually spotted drunk and disfigured. Countless occasions saw the man barely able to walk, wobbling and drooping with every step he took. His embattled guards spent more time keeping him upright than they did anything else. Once, he was even filmed pinching a pair of female secretaries on camera, in yet another display of his poor composure. Or even throwing one of them in water. If you haven’t figured it out yet, the Russian President was a raging alcoholic, whose dependence on alcohol seemed to only worsen as the years passed. In the words of a German newspaper, he was Russia’s “drunken czar” with no shortage of amusing train-wrecks in the diplomatic sphere. And plenty of subject matter for the tabloids to gossip about, too.
In 1999, he was thrown out of the Kremlin and replaced by a man who symbolized the opposite, in the form of ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin. But, with his departure, US-Russian Relations never saw a cozier period again. In an interesting turn of events, Russia’s new equestrian, masculine and shrewd President was having none of it. Determined to repair Russia’s scarred image, Putin sparked a new era of Russian resurgence and growing animosity with the West. A far cry from the late-night Pizzas and vodka binges of the 1990s.
In other words, Uncle Joe can expect a wide array of fiascos from the Russian Bear. But, in all likelihood, it probably won’t include any drunken phone calls or late-night escapades…