Leon Worden

Inside look at a bizarre election

Leon Worden · February 26, 1997

SACRAMENTO -- Joe Shumate didn't know what to think when his office phone rang last February. It was the most important election of the 1996 season, and the outlook was grim.

The voice on the phone sought high-caliber advisers, and Shumate fit the bill. For years Shumate had called the shots for Republican candidates up and down California, including some locally, such as former Assembly candidate and Valencia attorney Hunt Braly.

Shumate phoned George Gorton, Gov. Pete Wilson's top strategist. Gorton had recently pulled the plug on Wilson's ill-fated White House bid and could use a new client right about now. "What should we charge (to do this campaign)?" Gorton asked Shumate.

"I don't know," came an uneasy chuckle. The candidate was polling fifth with a meager 6 percent approval rating. "Let's see. It's the first free election in 800 years, it's the largest land mass in the world...."

The candidate was Boris Yeltsin.

Shumate and Gorton arrived in Moscow in February, 1996 with Dick Dresdner, another former Wilson consultant who, with partner Dick Morris, once ran the gubernatorial campaigns of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. They had four months to save Russian president Yeltsin's political skin and, in so doing, thwart the former Soviet republic's likely backslide to communism in the form of Gennadi Zyuganov, who was leading.

"No one could know we were there," Shumate said Saturday. "The idea of bringing in Americans to revive Boris Yeltsin would have been an incredible tool for the communists."

"We never even met Yeltsin," Gorton adds. "No one meets with Yeltsin. We dealt with Tatiana (Dyachenko, Yeltsin's daughter), and that gave her enormous power." Only Dyachenko meets daily with Yeltsin, to whom she filters information, Gorton explains.

"The intrigue was incredible. Our phones were probably bugged by three different organizations." "The murder rate in Russia is two times higher than in New York City. In New York, most murder victims are drug dealers. In Russia, number one are bankers, number two are bureaucrats, number three are politicians. And hey, that's us!"

"The KGB didn't go away, it just changed its nameplate. They were far more interested in what Mr. Shumate was doing than if there were U.S. subs off the coast. If the communists took over, (the secret police) would all be shot, so they wanted to know what Joe was doing about the election."

What the Americans did was develop the same sort of strategy they've used here countless times: polling, focus groups, and negative advertising. They polled twice a week and assembled 50 focus groups to gauge voter opinions. Most people believed Yeltsin corrupt and blamed him for the unpopular war in Chechnya. Even Josef Stalin polled higher than Yeltsin in the countryside.

"We kept sending memos to Yeltsin, telling him to give land to the peasants," Gorton says. "Finally he signed the decree. It was the first time since 1917 that Russia had private land ownership." But the strategy backfired. Yeltsin's numbers dropped farther. "The perception was that Moscow was the Emerald City, and now with privatization, the checks stopped coming."

The team regrouped. Yeltsin should get out among the public, shaking hands and planting trees. But Yeltsin insiders "were freaked out about the idea of him going out among the public because they didn't want him getting booed," Shumate says.

Enter Bill Clinton. With the two presidents meeting in April for a Moscow summit, Dresdner called Dick Morris. "We got Clinton to downplay Chechnya," Gorton says. Clinton let Yeltsin look tough and encouraged him to appear in his own commercials.

The conversation officially never took place. But within a few days, Yeltsin was touring "three or four different geographical regions on a two-day swing," Shumate says. The team stitched together footage of the isolated and stodgy Russian leader appearing to be what he was not -- a warm and friendly man of the people. Yeltsin pulled even but just couldn't take the lead. Television had always been a tool for state-sponsored lies, and the public wouldn't buy Yeltsin's promises.

Only one trick remained in the Americans' arsenal. Negative campaigning. Yeltsin's forces balked. The advisers persisted.

"About half the country believed there would be civil war if the communists took over," Gorton says. Nonetheless, says Shumate, "it was tough to convince (Yeltsin's people) to go hard anti-communist. They wanted to go against the other democrats, and we had to convince them it would bring down all democrats" including Yeltsin.

Yeltsin finally took the advice and let the Californians go negative. On first-round election day, June 16, Yeltsin edged Zyuganov by 3 percentage points.

Shumate and crew turned up the heat. One ad featured a film clip of a 1930s-era Stalinist execution with a voice saying, "No one thought in 1917 that sons would be killing fathers...." TV viewers were barraged for two solid weeks.

Yeltsin took the runoff. The Americans hightailed it for home. And if you ask anyone in the Kremlin, they were never there.

- 30 -

Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears on Wednesdays.

comments powered by Disqus