The Other Presidents

 Talking fishin’ and droughts with presidents: Scott Diel takes a personal look back at the Clinton and Bush visits to the Baltic region. Cover Photo: Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc

Clinton – Riga 1993

“Oh, I know your mother,” said Hillary Clinton to the man next to me in the receiving line.

The whole day had been some kind of Arkansas family shindig. A few hours earlier I’d stood in a park next to President Bill Clinton for an impromptu Spit & Whittle Club meeting with two Peace Corps volunteers who were Arkansas natives. Clinton spoke to the two – I remained silent – as if he’d known them all his life. It would have been no surprise if someone had whipped out a banjo or mouth harp.

“There go those fucking Peace Corps people again,” a woman snarled behind me. I turned and recognized her as the number three or four at the American embassy in Estonia. She’d been put behind a rope line and kept from Clinton by the Secret Service, who had instructed me and the two Arkansans to “Stand right here in this very spot and do not move one single inch.” They were favoring us, because some volunteers were serving as translators, helping them say things like, “Keep these blinds closed or snipers will blow your windows out.”

To see Hillary, our only scheduled meet and greet on the agenda, dogs had come through the room just before her arrival. They were every bit as professional as their handlers (unlike Latvian dogs) and did not attempt to rip our throats open or even sniff our crotches.

I recall very little of what Hillary said, and only one impression has remained with me: The American security entourage was a source of great pride in a time and place where a chance meeting with a cop could be likened to an encounter with venomous snakes – avoid if possible.

Bush – Tallinn 2006

It was thanks to the president that I was in the audience. Not President Bush, who was to enter the room and take the stage momentarily, but the president of the American Chamber of Commerce.

This president (lower case) had insisted repeatedly to the US embassy that meeting President Bush was the natural birthright of every board member of the American Chamber. Finally, the embassy caved, and here we were, me and a half dozen other board members, plus 20 or so embassy wives and lower-level workers, packed tightly into a tiny Radisson meeting room. Table and chairs had been removed to make room for a foot-high dais, a disk jockey, and a red velvet rope.

“Hail to the Chief” came through two large speakers above the DJ stand, and then a voice no doubt usually employed at D.C. bar mitzvahs and weddings: “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.”

And there he was, literally bounding into the room and leaping onto the dais. “It’s uh great to be in Tallinn,” he said his bizarre prep school Texan. “And I’d like ya to meet my Secuhtary uh State, Condi Rice.” Condi waved.

The president made his routine remarks, thanking embassy workers for sacrifices made far from home, and then worked the crowd. Not the biggest Bush fan, and also wanting to believe I was immune to the pull of power, I did not compete with the wives at the velvet rope. But then there was Bush, his hand reaching three-deep through the crowd to beckon mine. I was pulled to the rope, and we spoke approximately 20 seconds on serious matters of state.

“Give me some notice next time, Mr. President, and I’ll take you fishing.”

“You fish here? Really? Whaddya catch?”

“Trout, salmon, pike.”

“Got a drought in Texas. Fishin’s no good.”

And then he moved on to the next person, and Secuhtary Condi took my hand to discuss I-don’t-remember-what.

Later on I wondered if it wasn’t a patented move from the campaign playbook – Reach back to row three, for rows one and two are naturally filled by True Believers.

Bush never called me to go fishing. And I heard he finally got rain in Texas.

Obama – Tallinn 2014

I was invited to Obama’s speech, which surprised me, because I no longer hold any prominent position in Tallinn. An old friend in the embassy from Peace Corps days must have quietly put my name on the list.

I half wondered if my invitation might mean a jumbotron screen outdoors, several blocks from the speaking venue. I imagined heavy rain.

Although I love the spectacle of a presidential visit, I was committed to be elsewhere that day. I also wondered whether I wanted to hear Obama’s speech, one which would likely be a cobbling together of things said elsewhere and culminate in a Three Musketeers line, An attack on Estonia is an attack on all.

I was also a bit put off by what Garry Kasparov has called the “vocabulary of cowardice,” or bureaucratic weasel words to advance the idea that what’s happening in the Ukraine is not war but “aggression” or “kinetic action,” or whichever of a half dozen euphemisms are being tossed about. I’ve often wondered about Narva and what might happen if there were similar “aggression” there? How hard would it be for Putin to round up some “separatists”? Would Article 5 be avoided through semantic gymnastics?

I know no more than what I read in the papers, but perhaps the west isn’t calling it a war as a favor to Putin, so that he still has the chance to extract himself and save face without having actually waged war? Because with so many American “boots on the ground” in so many different parts of the world, and because fighting a war eventually requires selling it to the American public, I wonder whether Joe Sixpack and his wife would want their sons to die for Estonia.

He may not have channeled JFK, but it was definitely not the vocabulary of cowardice.

It also worries me that Estonia still might place hope in the white ship of legend to arrive from the west in its hour of need. It didn’t come last time, though of course anyone may point out that the circumstances were different. This time around, Estonia could have gone with an Israeli approach and trained and armed to the teeth every man, woman, and child. Instead, it’s gone with NATO, spent the full two percent of GDP, and dispatched Estonian soldiers to every NATO conflict. It’s the only reasonable plan, my Estonian friends tell me. Perhaps so, but as a red-blooded American who rooted for Patrick Swayze in Red Dawn, I still wouldn’t mind NATO membership and a pair of assault rifles in every happy home.

Despite my cynicism – the very thing Obama cautioned against in his speech – I was moved by his unequivocal commitment: “Estonia will never stand alone.”

He may not have channeled JFK, but it was definitely not the vocabulary of cowardice. A commentator remarked that he couldn’t have said much more within the bounds of diplomatic possibilities. But it was plenty for me.

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