Saxophone Bill in Moscow

January 15, 1994

It is easy to see how President Clinton played so seemingly well in Moscow. Never before had Russians seen anything as polished as his mixture of high-level substance and showmanship. One minute he would sign arms agreements, another he would play the saxophone.

Mikhail S. Gorbachev was able to charm Americans in the dying days of communism because he was seen as a different kind of a Russian. President Clinton achieved something similar in Moscow this week through his theatrics.

After years of viewing aging U.S. presidents, the Russians saw Mr. Clinton projecting youth and vitality, an easy mixture of hype and seriousness. To Russians now learning first-hand lessons of the hardships of capitalism and the chaos of democracy, he was a startling reminder that the boldest dreams can be realized. If a kid from Hope, Ark., can do it, why not a malchik from Russia?

"Come up here and shake hands with me, and maybe you'll be president of Russia someday," he told one beaming 13-year-old during his unprecedented town meeting on Russian television.

This may be corny but it apparently worked. Just as few Americans during the height of Gorbymania paused to think about the Kremlin leader's awesome problems, few Russians saw beyond the television images of the Clinton visit. Whitewater meant nothing to them. As to womanizing, no Russian man needs a teacher.

Mr. Clinton has reasons to feel satisfied about his Moscow summit. He got the arms agreements he wanted: Ukraine's promise to rid itself of Soviet era nuclear weapons; Russia's commitment to stop aiming its missiles at pre-selected foreign targets; President Boris N. Yeltsin's avowal that Russia's economic reforms will continue.

In return, Mr. Clinton promised more American aid. But more important than that was the symbolism contained in his overnight stay as a guest at the Kremlin (not at the U.S. Embassy) and his visibly easy relationship with Mr. Yeltsin. They sent a clear, understandable message to the Russian people and the country's warring politicians.

Mr. Clinton's decision to exclude Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the neo-fascist adventurer, from his program but to include representatives of both ultra-nationalists and communists sent another unequivocal signal. The United States, Mr. Clinton declared, will deal with the full hand of Russian politics but will not allow itself to be become the punching bag of an irresponsible egomaniac.

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