THE LAST TIME Boris Yeltsin came to America, the Bush administration was determined to treat him as a clown who had to be kept from careening into the center ring. Yeltsin, unself-consciously cooperating with the negative image-making, conducted his diplomacy through the unusual means of public urination, drunkenness and gaseous non sequiturs.
But now the dismissable clown has returned as the inescapable power. The iron gates of the White House are swinging open. Creating mischief has its reasons and rewards after all.
The positive side of Yeltsin is simply a view from another angle of the unvarnished man, less reminiscent of the boorish, shoe-pounding Nikita Khrushchev at the U.N. than the appealing, earthy Khrushchev touring the model Iowa farm. But Yeltsin is something new. Democratic election has bestowed on him a certain dignity that even the cosmopolitan Mikhail Gorbachev cannot claim. Yeltsin arrives in the presence of President Bush with a mantle of legitimacy that no Soviet (or Russian) leader has ever had.
Yet Bush must also handle him respectfully and carefully because of the strength of his political personality, which is composed of elements peculiarly resonant with U.S. public opinion. Like Huey Long, Yeltsin is a populist who invariably pits "us" against "them." He has undergone a conversion from party stalwart to party rebel. The establishment conspired to bring about his disgrace, but he has come back to loom above his enemies. Like Fiorello La Guardia, he has fought City Hall and won.
George Bush -- the patrician club man, underwritten in business by family wealth, risen to prominence by appointments (including the position of party chairman) -- is Boris Yeltsin's antithesis, though with his horseshoes and country music he has strained for a Yeltsin affect. Bush's awkward gestures of identity remodeling are testimony that the self-made man who offers himself as the representative of the common people is hardly a foreign type.
Bush's initial resistance to meeting Yeltsin and then capitulation follows his familiar reactive pattern. Much of the first year of his presidency, on the eve of the European revolutions of 1989, was consumed in denying the meaning of Mikhail Gorbachev. Bush's belated acknowledgment of his reality was really an inevitable acceptance of a fait accompli.
But, just as during the Cold War, U.S. policy was calculated on dealing with a supreme leader whose stable rule implied consistency and thus safety. Even as the administration reluctantly moved away from the Cold War, it betrayed a nostalgic impulse. Its understanding of the Cold War is based on the false belief that it provided a period of stability in international affairs.
By resting its policy on Gorbachev, with whom Bush has come to sympathize as a beleaguered member of his leaders' club, the administration has tried to re-establish that stability. The Soviet leader is a means to an end, and the relationship, as the gulf crisis bore out, has become nothing less than a central premise of the new world order.
Yet the stability of the Cold War was always precarious and the era dangerous. The earth-shaking explosions in Central Europe and those that have brought Yeltsin to the presidency of Russia were the consequence of volcanic pressures long building below the surface. Nor have the causes of the deeply unsettling events been exhausted.
Yeltsin's visit marks a new, irreversible phase in U.S.-Soviet relations. The Soviet Union will not be stable for a long time; at the same time, it is becoming a more ordinary country. Yeltsin is merely the first in what promises to be a series of Yeltsins -- opposition leaders in what is turning into a pluralistic system. American presidents who have been used to dealing with a single Soviet figure are now going to have to cope with a parade of them.
Gorbachev, of course, is not suddenly disposable. On the contrary, the U.S. cannot truly have an effective approach to him without also maintaining one toward Yeltsin. As the spur to reform, Yeltsin's thunder on the left gives the Soviet president precious room in which to maneuver.
But he also complicates Gorbachev's and Bush's attempts to simplify matters to deals between them. Yeltsin, for example, may redefine the conditions Bush wishes to lay down for aid as something else -- a watered-down version of Yeltsin's own radical goals.
Boris Yeltsin is by nature voluble, undisciplined and unpredictable. Soviet politics have become chaotic and irrational. The Russians are flattering us with desperately improvised attempts at imitation. Bush, by greeting Yeltsin at last, is demonstrating that he has no choice but to learn how to live with democracy.
Sidney Blumenthal, senior editor of the New Republic, is writing a book about James Baker.