There is nothing more dangerous in politics than the dreaded news vacuum, and that is the specter that haunts administration officials trapped–along with the rest of us–in the Denver Convention Complex (a k a the international media center). There are two distinct groups of bored reporters: the traveling White House press corps, which gets its own special room in a subterranean corner of the complex, and everyone else–warehoused in a vast, windowless exhibition hall, made all the more desolate and depressing by the rows of empty filing tables for the 5,000 reporters who aren’t here. At least in the White House room you can talk to administration types, but they have nothing to say. Everyone already knows what’s going to be in the communiqué, and no one really cares. An early draft of the Bosnia language probably leaves room for adjusting the departure date of the SFOR force in Bosnia, but it’s a moot point; Madeleine Albright already won that battle weeks ago. Everyone’s looking for winners and losers, but the reality is that the summit consists of eight guys in a room, speaking through translators, delivering prepared texts on the economic impact of aging populations with the occasional banter about who arrived late or didn’t smile at the cameras. All in all, they are probably more bored than we are. I wander between the White House press and the hall, in case I miss something, but of course, I don’t.
The summit did get off to a strangely inauspicious start when Tony Blair’s chair mysteriously vanished during the opening photo opportunity. It seemed to be a full-blown advance crisis as harried aides rushed around looking for the missing designer piece–a black leather, high-backed model known as the Sapper–but alas, all that could be found was a low-slung interpreter’s seat. Blair took his place at the table looking for all the world like a naughty schoolboy who refuses to eat his porridge. “People will die for this,” remarks one administration official–and he doesn’t look like he’s joking.
The White House has helpfully distributed packets touting the resurgence of the U.S. economy and how the president has slain inflation, conquered unemployment, negotiated a balanced budget, created millions of new jobs–and won re-election. Take that, European crypto-socialists. A counterattack is launched by miffed G-7 officials who complain about misplaced American triumphalism and the negative impact it will have on the leaders’ discussions. The packets are quietly withdrawn and replaced, instead, by a press release announcing that Jake Steinfield, of Body by Jake, is to be nominated to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
At about 1:30, Mike McCurry appears to deliver a readout of the morning sessions. He opens by saying, “I’m going to be absolutely useless because there’s nothing, believe me.” But he’s not quite right. We do learn that, at a break before lunch, the leaders “appeared to enjoy being outside in the sunshine after being cooped up all morning so they lingered on the balcony.”
The reading of the foreign and finance ministers’ statements is rapidly overshadowed by an emerging crisis, as it becomes clear that most summit leaders will refuse to attire themselves in the Western gear that the White House has left in their suites for the evening festivities. It’s Bologate as Canadian Prime Minister Chrétien apparently leads the protest by pointing out that Calgary is also part of the West–and he insists on wearing his own boots. Helmut Kohl arrives for dinner in a gray suit and tie telling Clinton, who is in his best Roy Rogers gear, that he “looks like the president of the Farm Association.” Tony Blair gamely puts on some jeans–but they have that shapeless crotch, wrong shade of blue look of Marks & Spencer’s own brand, oh well. Hashimoto actually wears the boots, but one official commenting on Japanese politeness notes the old Japanese saying, “Just because you eat the food doesn’t mean that you ask for the recipe.”
Along with Boris Yeltsin, I miss Saturday Night at the Summit and watch it on TV instead. I have a new respect for the artistic judgment of the Russian leader. It’s another Harry Thomason extravaganza. It’s supposed to be a celebration of American culture but, with the marching bands and overamped commercial country, it’s about as authentic as a Super Bowl half-time show and two hours too long. Hashimoto and Kohl very wisely fall asleep and, as Lyle Lovett plays, the chancellor no doubt dreams of saddling up and riding off into the Westphalia of the imagination.
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June 22, 1997
I watch the arrivals for the final session at the Denver library on local TV. For some reason, Channel 4’s color commentator is fascinated with the fact that Yeltsin has brought his own limousine. “Now you’re about to see a sight that no one in Denver has ever seen,” he announces triumphally as the antiquated Zil rolls into sight. The excitement is lost on me. It seems to be just another black limo, identical to everyone else’s. Much more fun is the Colorado city bus that Chancellor Kohl has commandeered, and which has wreaked havoc with timetables and protocol as it attempts to navigate various driveways and entrances. It’s all part of Kohl’s effort to demonstrate his green credentials back home, although judging by the thick diesel fumes coming out of Yeltsin’s car, the environmental impact is probably a wash.
I pick up some quiet concern that all the hoopla over Boris Yeltsin is undermining the value of the summit as primarily an economic forum. Non-U.S. officials note that last year’s Lyon summit was almost twice as long and Yeltsin only got to attend one session. This year, in just a day and a half of summitry, Yeltsin was present for the vast majority of the discussions. Although everyone understands the geopolitical value of pulling Russia into the G-7 process, some officials believe that his presence has detracted from a more extensive discussion of issues such as WTO membership and the need for a follow-on to the Uruguay Round.
I’m also told that the Japanese role has been interesting. Increasingly the Japanese see themselves representing the “Voice of Asia” (the Russian Far East notwithstanding) at these events. Their objection to tougher language on Hong Kong made the communiqué language vaguer than it might have been, and probably played a role in the inability of Tony Blair to get any other country to join him and Albright in boycotting the installation of China’s handpicked Hong Kong legislature. Japanese objections also led to the dropping of language on Burma and Cambodia.
But we’re moving rapidly to the grand finalé. Press strategy 101: About the only foreign leader not to schedule his briefing within 15 minutes of President Clinton’s press conference is Tony Blair, and consequently he gets coverage although he’s learned his lessons well from the big guy–he stands for hope, growth, opportunity, education, and welfare reform. It all sounds very familiar.
The big event of the day, of course, is the president’s press conference, although there are so few reporters that the White House staff has to bus in summit volunteers to fill up the seats. Everyone is surprised at Clinton’s confidence and facility with foreign policy. They are especially impressed at his lengthy review of the history of the U.S.-China relationship. He leans forward slightly on the lectern, almost conveying a sense of personal eye contact with each member of the audience, and patiently explains U.S. policy from Nixon through the joint communiqués on Taiwan to Tiananmen Square and pulling it all together in terms of Hong Kong. You realize that when this man is on his game, no one else comes close.
We get our copies of the final communiqué. My evening’s work will be comparing the vague, meaningless platitudes of the agreed text with the vague, meaningless platitudes of a draft version I obtained a few days ago. Meanwhile, someone tells me that at 5,200 feet alcohol works twice as fast as at sea level, so I join some of my friends at a “wheels up” party to test the veracity of this claim.