Bill Clinton had some busy roommates at Oxford: One guy was writing an opus about former Russian president Nikita Krushchev. He had secret tapes of Krushchev that had been smuggled out of Russia.
Another roommate, also gifted with language skills, was drafting a tome on Mao Tse-tung’s “Long March” — part of the Chinese leader’s path to decades of power as the country’s communist ruler. His writing was supported by a journalist’s notes.
Compared to his Rhodes Scholar roomies, Clinton didn’t have much to write about.
“I was the guy from Arkansas who just happened to be there,” the former U.S. president said Tuesday night. “So my job was to get up and make ’em breakfast every day.”
The 50-year-old anecdote helped the 42nd president launch his participation in the Casey Shearer Memorial Lecture Series at Brown University.
Clinton’s Russian-speaking Oxford housemate, Strobe Talbott, later served as his chief Russia expert.
And Talbott’s brother-in-law, Derek Shearer, is the father of Casey Shearer. As a child, the younger Shearer once rolled around on the rug in the office of the Arkansas governor.
Later, he went to high school in Finland and studied at Brown. He died after collapsing during a pickup basketball game just prior to his graduation ceremony. The lecture event, which encompasses an award for nonfiction, is designed around his memory.
On Tuesday, his father, a former U.S. Ambassador to Finland, lit off the on-stage discussion with Clinton in Pizzitola Sports Center.
Are Russians, he asked, doomed to live under an authoritarian and brutal ruler?
“The short answer is, I don’t know,” said Clinton, “and I spend sleepless nights thinking about it.”
Clinton said his critics of late have accused him of alienating Russia and making Russians “feel small.”
Some critics, including New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and the late Russia expert George F. Kennan have said that plotting a course to welcome additional countries into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s also set a course for conflict with Russia.
“Here’s what you need to know,” said Clinton.
“The idea that we were trying to jam Russia or isolate them…that’s just not true,” he said.
He gave a statistical defense of his administration’s Russia policy. He carried out a total of 23 meetings with Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s president from 1991 to 1999, and Vladimir Putin, its current president, compared to a total of 26 meetings between Russian and American leaders during the entire previous era dating back to 1943 and World War II, he said.
Clinton said he dealt with Putin at five meetings. One of those sessions unfolded just after Boris Yeltsin named Putin as his successor, he said.
“We had a great talk,” Clinton recalled, “but I was left completely uncertain about what he was going to do.”
At one point, Clinton and Yeltsin had reached a deal to remove American and other NATO troops from the borders. Russia would do the same to create less tension, Clinton said.
But Putin wouldn’t commit.
Clinton said Putin told him he knew that in the United States it was the tradition for a new administration to honor the previous administration’s foreign commitments — even if the new administration was a different party.
Clinton said Putin told him he didn’t think that tradition would hold up if the Democrats lost the presidency. He cited the popularity of neocon politics in the Republican Party.
Putin promised to make the deal if Democrat Al Gore won the 2000 election, Clinton said, adding that he felt Putin was both smart and honest with him.
Later on, after Clinton was no longer president, he met Putin again. This time, the discussion involved the possibility of the Clinton foundation to run its HIV/AIDS program in St. Petersburg, Russia.
“I said to Putin, ” ‘I’m not your priest any more or your president. I’m just a guy who’s trying to do a job,’ ” Clinton recalled.
But Putin couldn’t agree on the terms of some contract language that set the cost of each care, Clinton said.
“He was always kind of trying to build this klepto state,” he said.
With Talbott, Clinton visited Yeltsin. He said he told him, “He’s very able but I don’t think he believes in Democracy.”
Clinton also talked about China’s president, Xi Jinping. China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea is really a gambit to drum up national passions and support for Xi to remain China’s leader for the remainder of his life, he said.
Silenced by poison, bullets, jail: Navalny, Nemtsov and more Putin critics
Authoritarian regimes can gain sway, Clinton said, but they can’t win in the long-run because the world is too interdependent and authoritarianism doesn’t make sense.
In the U.S., he said, the Republican Party’s efforts to vote out certain election officials who served honorably during the 2020 presidential election, including some Republicans, is an issue.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s a big problem.”
Clinton talked about living life. He still plays the saxophone, but not very well, he said. He and Hillary get a “cheap thrill” out of doing the New York Times spelling bee.
He also thinks about dinosaurs. They lived for 100 million years, he said.
He asked, “Does anyone seriously believe we’re going to make it a million years the way we’re going?”
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Bill Clinton recalls early meetings with Vladimir Putin in Brown talk