Two presidents find common ground Meeting marked by good-natured give-and-take THE VANCOUVER SUMMIT

April 05, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Staff Writer

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The president of the United States traveled almost 3,000 miles and the president of Russia came more than 5,000 to get to this place, and they quickly discovered common ground.

Each is a politician. Each has been severely tested at home. They treated each other like political soulmates.

That much was apparent in their dialogue, the give-and-take of their repartee, and their body language during a two-day summit in this city of breathtaking beauty that hugs the Pacific coastline.

As Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin rose for his customary toast Saturday night, he tipped his glass of white wine toward President Clinton, smiled expansively and said: "Like you, Mr. President, I am the son of peasants."

If it lost something in translation, the meaning was clear: In the young U.S. president, Mr. Yeltsin has found someone with his same humble roots, someone who he believes "understands the Russian people."

For his part, Mr. Clinton saw something in the 62-year-old Russian leader that he identified with, too.

"I like him," Mr. Clinton confided to two close aides this weekend. "That guy is a fighter."

The 46-year-old U.S. president made those observations as he climbed into the limousine that would take him from the MacKenzie House at the University of British Columbia to his hotel this weekend.

The two men with him, Special Ambassador Strobe Talbott and White House communications director George Stephanopoulos, recalled something else, too.

Mr. Yeltsin was well-prepared, rarely consulted notes, spoke forcefully and knowledgeably. "He knew his brief," was the way Mr. Talbott decribed him. Mr. Stephanopoulos' characterization was more down-to-earth: "Yeltsin was on top of his game," he said.

It would be a rare summit, indeed, in which top diplomatic officials would claim that world leaders didn't care for one another. But there was enough evidence in the way they acted at a news conference yesterday that the two men had genuinely hit it off.

Even before they began negotiating, the two leaders found a common irritant in the hordes of news media people from around the world whom they were forced to accommodate.

Mr. Clinton was overheard expressing impatience with the waves of photographers.

And late Saturday night, after a three-hour dinner, as the men strolled down a scenic walkway, Mr. Yeltsin was overheard making fun by saying in a mock gruff voice as though he were setting up a picture, "Mr. Clinton, you stand over here. Mr. Yeltsin, you stand over there."

At their news conference yesterday, Mr. Yeltsin got a rise out of his new-found American friend by telling an inside joke in the form of thanking the press for keeping a "round-the-clock watch at their posts."

For Mr. Yeltsin, who is relying on Mr. Clinton to orchestrate world leaders in helping Russia's economy, it seemed important that he trust the U.S. president.

Mr. Clinton, who tends to personalize issues, also had a desire to hit it off with a president he is doing so much to help.

At the small, head-of-state dinner attended by roughly 20 officials from both nations, the two leaders swapped jokes, toasts and testimonials.

Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen said one source of gallows humor was each leader's troubles with his respective Congress back home, though each understands that Mr. Yeltsin's are a lot more severe.

The dinner had several poignant moments, according to several participants.

"You studied me, and I studied you," one guest recalled Mr. Yeltsin saying in his toast. "And I tried to figure out why you care so much about the Russian people."

Later, when it was Mr. Clinton's turn, he held up his own glass of white wine and said: "We are both democrats!"

And at that point, Mr. Yeltsin leaned across the table and clinked glasses with Mr. Clinton. The guests did the same thing. "It was a moving moment," recalled White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers.

In his remarks at a joint news conference here late yesterday afternoon, Mr. Yeltsin indicated that he was impressed right away by his U.S. counterpart. "We immediately found common language in Vancouver," he said.

Mr. Clinton himself provided one possible reason why it didn't take long for the two leaders to warm up to each other. One of the first things Mr. Clinton did was to apologize for an incident in which a submarine of the U.S. Navy rammed a Russian sub in the Bering Sea recently. Mr. Clinton also told Mr. Yeltsin he had ordered a complete investigation into U.S. procedures for patrolling off the Russian coasts.

Asked by a Russian journalist why he believes the two presidents hit it off, Mr. Yeltsin offered this explanation: "We are both business people, but idealists, also."

He said he had invited Mr. Clinton to follow up with a visit to Russia at his convenience.

"Mr. Clinton is a serious partner," Mr. Yeltsin said.

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