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Book Review September 6, 2002
 
The Russian Hack
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 2 of 5
 
In other words: he looked like a fat old guy with a hangover, trying not to make his headache any worse by turning his head. That's how a writer not so addicted to the Time Magazine style of writing might have described Yeltsin. But for Talbott, Yeltsin's every belch, bead of sweat or varicose vein is fraught with significance. When Yeltsin looks bad, things look bad for Russia -- for the whole world! And when, at another "summit," Yeltsin is "in good form," Talbott, vile courtier, is adoring:

"[Yeltsin's] color was healthy, his gaze steady, his gestures firm and in synch with his speech...."

This sort of body-language obsession was, of course, standard practice for American "Russia hands" during the Cold War. I recall reading a proud account of the way a CIA agent managed to collect the urine container of a Soviet aircraft carrying an important Politburo official so that rumors of his diabetes could be confirmed or refuted.

Indeed, that urine-collecting mission still stands in my mind as the perfect example of America's Russia-watching enterprise: a befouled and degrading attempt to read men whose whole career was devoted to being unreadable.

But it's a bit odd to find Talbott engaging in the same Politburo-sniffing activities. Yeltsin's regime was as porous as Stalin's was hermetic; if you wanted to find out about Yeltsin's health, all you had to do was bribe someone. You could very probably have bribed Yeltsin himself, for that matter. Why, then, these endless attempts to read Yeltsin's horrible visage as if it were the key to Russia?

The answer is quite simple, and shameful. Though he claims to have studied Russian history, Talbott (and his master Clinton) glibly imposes on Russia the "presidential" pattern basic to American politics, in which two (supposedly) antagonistic factions within the oligarchy focus all their aspirations in two rival candidates. There can only be two men in the picture, whether it's imposed on a domestic struggle between Bush and Clinton, or one in the endless series of "summits" between Clinton and Yeltsin.

Thus Clinton easily begins to consider Yeltsin his opposite number, with the same instincts and goals. And, as Talbott confesses in one of his better moments, parallels between Clinton and Yeltsin were not difficult to find:

"I suspected there was more to [Clinton's] affinity with Yeltsin than being approximately the same height and shape and shoe size....Yeltsin combined prodigious determination and fortitude with grotesque indiscipline and a kind of genius for self-abasement. He was both a very big man and a very bad boy, a natural leader and an incurable screw-up. All this Clinton recognized, found easy to forgive and wanted others to join him in forgiving."

Clinton sees Yeltsin as an older, weaker version of himself and enjoys manipulating his moribund double. There was no reason to expect that Clinton would do otherwise; it was probably in the US's interests to let a weak and corrupt figurehead occupy power in Russia while America went about destroying its former rival. The anomaly is that Talbott, the supposed "Russia hand" and Russophile, apparently endorses Clinton's facile translation of "Ol' Boris"'s actions and motives into American context. "Yeltsin's a good politician," says Clinton again and again (and again.)

Talbott quotes Clinton's commentaries on Yeltsin at tremendous length. They are distinguished by patronizing, faux-homespun slang which becomes more irksome each time it is repeated:

"I guess we've got to pull up our socks and back Ol' Boris again."

"This Guy [Yeltsin]'s in the fight of his life, and he thinks he's going to win!"

"'That's why I want to stay close to [Yeltsin],' said Clinton, pounding his palm on the steering wheel of the golf cart. He wanted to use his upcoming summit 'to really bond with the guy. When he's got hard calls to make, he's more likely to make the right ones with the knowledge that I'm there for him.'"

And my personal favorite, in which Clinton explains:


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