The Washington Post

President Clinton’s first meeting with Putin: Dress to impress


U.S. President Bill Clinton, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands after signing agreements in the Kremlin in Moscow on June 4, 2000.  (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Ahead of President Bill Clinton’s first meeting with newly elected Russian President Vladimir Putin in June 2000, a Clinton national security adviser and scheduler suggested that he dress to impress for his face-to-face with Putin.

“The pictures of your first encounter will be important, and we recommend business attire,” they wrote in a memo. “We want to convey ‘getting down to business’ and avoid the inaccurate charge that we’re embracing Putin without question.”

According to a Washington Post article at the time, the two leaders ate “cabbage soup, spicy boiled wild boar, trout, goose, baked stag ham and rich ice cream dessert” at the Kremlin, and “there was a very easygoing nature to the conversation.” Putin also showed off his workout room. Afterward they attended a jazz concert.

The two men had previously met when Putin was prime minister, but this was their first sit-down as presidents. One  purpose of the meeting, according to a memo made public Friday as part of a larger release of secret Clinton White House documents, “was to stress the importance of continued engagement with Russia and the newly independent states.” Clinton also visited Ukraine on that trip to show other nations that emerged from the Soviet Union that U.S. foreign policy is not just “Russia-focused.”

As President Obama now knows well, dealing with Putin isn’t easy, and Clinton may have needed to decompress after several hours with Vlad. His chief of staff, John Podesta, suggested in an interview with Runner’s World just last month that they indulged in some Russian vodka after the dinner meeting:

“We saw Putin and then we had the evening free. We went to the Cafe Pushkin in Moscow, and as is habit in Moscow, we started drinking vodka shots. I’m not much of a drinker, but I had plenty to drink that night. I was supposed to meet Gene Sperling, who is now Obama’s economic director, for a run the next morning before going to see Boris Yeltsin, with whom Clinton had become quite close, at his dacha; so we needed to get up and out early. I don’t know how I managed to get out of bed. I wouldn’t even describe myself as hungover; alcohol was still pouring out of my pores.”

Podesta did not make clear if “we” included Clinton, but for the sake of fun visuals, let’s assume so.

Clinton has said that he and Putin used to go at it behind closed doors, but had a mutual trust. We wonder how he feels about Putin now that the Russian president suggested this week that his wife, Hillary Clinton, was “weak.”

Colby Itkowitz is the lead anchor of the Inspired Life blog. She previously covered the quirks of national politics and the federal government.

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