Diplomacy has its rules. Some of them are common sense, and some of them are arcane, really only familiar to diplomats and their aides. However, though it’s likely not in any book on diplomatic manners, wandering about your hosts’ residence and out into the street in just your underwear, drunk, trying to hail a taxi to order a pizza is probably not near the top of the list of appropriately diplomatic things to do. “What???” you say? Yes, it actually happened. Twice.
In 2009, author Taylor Branch interviewed Bill Clinton about his presidency, legacy, etc.
During the interviews, Clinton revealed some things about Boris Yeltsin that had previously been known to only a small group of people.
Clinton seems to have genuinely liked Yeltsin, but knew he was likely to say or do something strange at any moment, due to his tremendous intake of alcohol.
Yeltsin was also famously informal, having been brought up in the working classes of the Soviet Union and prized as the de-facto “mayor” of Moscow for his blunt, no-nonsense talk. Mostly though, it was the alcohol.
Clinton related how the Russian leader had once called him drunk in the middle of the night and suggested an idea for a new type of superpower summit – on board a nuclear submarine.
Once, Yeltsin gave Clinton a Russian hockey jersey that said “Clinton ’96” on it. Yeltsin has a matching jersey, with his name on it, and tried to get the President to wear the shirts in public with him.
On a visit to Franklin Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park, New York, Yeltsin said something off-color to the crowd of reporters gathered there.
It was obvious that the Russian leader had had too much wine during the formal lunch at FDR’s place, and Clinton tried to cover for him by laughing excessively.
Then there is the pizza episode. Yeltsin, in the United States for meetings with Clinton in 1994, was staying at Blair House, the President’s official guest house. The Secret Service received a call about the Russian president from police on the scene who recognized the Russian leader.
Yeltsin was standing all by himself on Pennsylvania Avenue, drunk out of his mind, in his briefs and t-shirt (and nothing else), yelling for a taxi. When the agents tried to reason with him, Yeltsin told them that he did not want to go back to Blair House — he wanted a pizza. Now.
Clinton related how the agents successfully got Yeltsin back to Blair House…with the promise of a pizza. Which he got.
That’s pretty bad, on a lot of levels. Unless you do it again, which is worse, and Yeltsin did it again. Well, he may not have been looking for a pizza the second time, but he definitely wanted out.
He snuck down the stairs, eluding both Secret Service and Russian agents. When both security teams found the Russian leader in the somewhat dark basement of Blair House, they almost shot each other, until the situation got quickly straightened out.
Yeltsin was in the Kremlin until 1999, when he was replaced with his hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin. Before he left, he pinched a few secretaries and passed out a couple of times.
Before you dismiss Boris Yeltsin as a bumbling fool, remember –- he played a significant role in the downfall of Soviet communism and the transition from the USSR to the Russian Federation. He also helped save the planet from accidental nuclear destruction.
On January 25, 2005, U.S. and Norwegian scientists launched a research rocket over the northwestern coast of Norway, near the border of Russia.
Part of the rocket’s trajectory was over a route that the Russians knew would be taken by any inbound U.S. nuclear strike.
Both U.S. and Norwegian authorities had done what they were supposed to do –- notify the Russian radar authorities (and others) of the missile launch. The operators in Russia failed to notify high-command.
What the Russian defense authorities saw on their screens looked awfully like what a U.S. missile would look like if it was in a high-trajectory mode, designed to explode in the atmosphere, release its electro-magnetic pulse to destroy Moscow’s electrical grid and begin a first U.S. nuclear strike.
The Russians had only minutes to react. They went to Yeltsin and notified him of the situation. He had the Russian version of the “nuclear football” opened. This is a briefcase with the appropriate launch codes inside, carried by an agent with it handcuffed to his wrist.
All Yeltsin had to do was issue the codes and the world would effectively end. He didn’t. He believed (his generals did not) that a mistake had been made. The world is lucky that Boris Yeltsin used his sober judgment when no one else was willing to.