World leaders say darndest things, eavesdropping reporter finds

July 11, 1994|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

NAPLES, Italy -- World leaders don't invite reporters to eavesdrop on their conversations. Now I know why.

It turns out that when they think no one is listening, presidents say the darndest things. Their banter falls somewhere between geopolitical cocktail party chatter and dialogue from a surrealistic play.

How else to describe table talk in which Bill Clinton tells the leaders of the world's most powerful democracies they ought to enter the Iditarod dogsled race across Alaska as a way to raise aid money for Boris N. Yeltsin's Russia?

"See," Mr. Clinton joshes with the leaders of Russia, Germany, Japan, France, Britain, Canada and Italy, "Boris and I, we have enough body fat. We can survive."

Though Mr. Clinton had to explain the race yesterday ("It goes on for days and days and days"), Mr. Yeltsin seemed to know all about Alaska. After all, it was Russian until it was sold to the United States in 1867 for a little more than $7 million under Czar Alexander II.

"Everybody speaks Russian in Alaska still," Mr. Yeltsin said brightly. To understand how one becomes an unwelcome guest at the world's most exclusive party, it helps to know one of journalism's dirty little secrets.

Media mega-events like the G-7 summit meeting held over the weekend in Naples draw hundreds of journalists from around the world. Only a few reporters and photographers are permitted on a rotating basis to witness the proceedings firsthand. Everyone else covers it from television monitors in a nearby press center.

It was The Sun's turn to represent other reporters in the press pool yesterday, an unglamorous assignment that was supposed to have involved simply watching the host leader, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, read a prepared statement for the cameras, while the rest of the leaders sat around and listened.

The job was to attend the event that everyone else had to watch on TV, and write a brief report that, at best, might give give other reporters a nugget of colorful detail for their stories. On rare occasions, like yesterday, it offers a glimpse into the way the members of the world's most powerful fraternity get along with one another.

At the appointed time, I was herded, along with about 20 photographers, into the meeting room: a sumptuous hall in Naples' Royal Palace, its walls all rich maroon velvet and gilt-edged mirrors, with enormous gilded chandeliers suspended from a vaulted ceiling festooned with painted clouds, cherubs and loads of blue sky.

Mr. Clinton and Mr. Yeltsin, seated side by side around the circular conference table, were locked in private conversation, translators leaning over their shoulders. The other world leaders sat in their black leather chairs, waiting quietly for the formal event to begin. When the start was delayed, the fun started.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who'd been staring at the Clinton-Yeltsin confab with an awkward, left-out look, dangled a conversation gambit of global proportions: Russia's attempts to shake down the rich nations of the world for aid.

Mr. Kohl looked across the table at Mr. Clinton and warned sternly: "He [Mr. Yeltsin] will come to you and ask you for a further payment on the Alaska sale."

"Nyet," responded the Russian, wagging his finger slowly back and forth for emphasis.

Mr. Clinton dissolved into laughter, but Mr. Kohl wasn't done.

"Was that full price that he paid?" he demanded to know. "What about the Alaska sale? What about that?"

Picking up the theme, Mr. Clinton interjected, 'We really should be paying France more money for the Louisiana Purchase. We got the whole western part of the United States."

(Those sorts of historical gaffes are why presidential handlers hate unscripted interludes like these. The Louisiana Purchase actually involved only a portion of the West. President Jimmy Carter once made a similar slip, saying the United States had bought Texas from Mexico. The offhand remark ignited a furor in the Lone Star State, which was actually an independent republic when it joined the Union).

Mr. Clinton turned to French President Francois Mitterrand. "It's Napoleon who was so famous for taking over land. There, he gave away all of America for $15 million," Mr. Clinton said.

Mr. Mitterrand's reply was indistinct.

"But at the same time it was still twice the annual budget," Mr. Clinton went on. "And Thomas Jefferson was very criticized by many people for buying it. Where would we be today if it hadn't been done?"

You'd be French, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien broke in.

"I would be speaking French and taking notes for you at this meeting," Mr. Clinton agreed.

Mr. Kohl returned the conversation to his idea that Russia should demand more dollars for Alaska. "Otherwise, you just get some money from us."

Mr. Yeltsin appeared to warm to that idea. "Two Germanies up in Alaska," he mused.

It was at this point that Mr. Clinton launched his Iditarod initiative, adding in an aside to British Prime Minister John Major that he had always wanted to witness the "fascinating" dogsled marathon.

And if the Iditarod plan didn't raise enough money, the deficit-conscious American leader had another enterprising notion for aiding Russia at someone else's expense.

Cash in on World Cup fever, he suggested to Mr. Yeltsin.

"I think you should get Helmut and Silvio to say if Italy or Germany wins the World Cup [they] fork over another billion," Mr. Clinton suggested, to hearty approval from the Russian.

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