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What Hillary Clinton Could Learn From Boris Yeltsin

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The failure of Hillary Clinton's campaign to disclose that she has come down with pneumonia amplifies the parallels between this U.S. presidential election campaign and the 1996 contest that opposed the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, and the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. 

The two presidential races are similar in their negative framing. In Russia 20 years ago and in the U.S. this year, both candidates are unpopular, and many of those who intend to vote for them see them as the lesser evil. Yeltsin's backers feared a Communist victory, some of Clinton's are trying to keep out a man they see as a dangerous demagogue. Many of Zyuganov's supporters would have preferred a more hard-line candidate who appealed to their Soviet nostalgia and imperial yearnings, but mostly they didn't want another four years of Wild West capitalism and dalliances with the West under Yeltsin. Many of Donald Trump's backers don't see him as a true conservative, but they'd rather elect anyone than Clinton.

The face-off between an establishment candidate and a populist outsider is another important similarity. Yeltsin, like Clinton, was the establishment: In addition to being an incumbent, he'd reached the top echelon of Soviet leaders before falling out of favor with President Mikhail Gorbachev. Zyuganov's career was less distinguished: he was the leader of a battered, cash-poor Communist Party that had little resemblance to the organization in which Yeltsin once almost made it to the all-powerful Politburo. Zyuganov ran a populist campaign, appealing to those who had been left behind by the capitalist transition, just as Trump targets those who have suffered from globalization. Like Trump, Zyuganov tried to sell voters on restoring the nation's past greatness. That was a good strategy: Early on, Zyuganov was far ahead in the polls.

Until now, though, the parallel was incomplete in one important way. Almost throughout the 1996 campaign, Yeltsin was gravely ill, and before the run-off, on June 26, he suffered a serious heart attack. His campaign didn't let on that anything was wrong. Most Russians had no idea before the decisive round that Yeltsin was laid up at his country house and unable to work. Only his closest circle knew. An unashamed Yeltsin later described the coverup in his memoir, "The Presidential Marathon," published in English as "Midnight Diaries":

On the second day after the heart attack, June 28, a parlor where my bed had been moved was turned into a semblance of an office. The cameraman (a Kremlin one) took a long time arranging things so that nothing tell-tale would be in the frame, especially the piano that had always been there and, of course, the bed. The medical equipment was covered up with something. Naina [Yeltsin's wife] begged me about one thing: "Borya! Just don't get up! Stay in the armchair! You're not allowed to get up!" But I couldn't hold back and forced myself to get up to greet my guest. Lebed was very happy with the meeting. He'd been told that I had a cold, and he didn't ask any prying questions.

In the U.S., a coverup on that scale would probably be difficult to organize. Candidates for top office live in glass houses, and media attention is unrelenting. Yet the Clinton campaign, inexplicably, is trying to follow in the Yeltsin team's footsteps. Clinton apparently found out on Friday that she had pneumonia, but the diagnosis did not become public until she publicly stumbled as she was leaving the Sept. 11 commemoration in New York. Immediately after the episode, the campaign said she had felt "overheated." The diagnosis was only revealed hours later. 

Yeltsin, with a far graver ailment than Clinton's, tried to keep up a semblance of a working schedule. As did Clinton: On Sunday, soon after she had to leave the ceremony, she emerged from her daughter Chelsea's apartment smiling and waving, trying to reassure voters she was fine. 

One could argue that none of this was necessary. There's nothing unusual or politically damaging about getting pneumonia. It's not as scary as a heart attack. Yet Trump and other Republicans have long suggested that Clinton's health is an issue, and she and her aides probably feel that adding any kind of fuel to that fire would be dangerous. Besides, Clinton is a woman, so she is especially careful not to be perceived as weak. The inept coverup, though, has only focused attention on Clinton's other health problems, which include a history of venous thrombosis that was treated with blood-thinners. 

Neither candidate in this race has released much information about their medical histories. There now is additional focus on Clinton, however, because of the suspicion -- a reasonable one based on Sunday's belated, incomplete admissions by her staff and the candidate herself -- that she will try to hide any ailment. Secrecy has been a pattern in the e-mail scandal and in the matter of her well-compensated speeches to Wall Street bankers. Like Yeltsin, she's generally unapologetic about not being generous with information.

Yeltsin was 65 when he was re-elected, three years younger than Clinton is today. He was a Russian male, a hard drinker and a risk-taker, so he was probably far less healthy than she is. But, like her, he had an aversion to showing weakness. 

Victory was sweet, but Yeltsin could no longer cover up his health problems. In September 1996, Sergei Parkhomenko, the editor of a weekly magazine in Moscow, found out that Yeltsin was about to undergo bypass surgery. The Kremlin persuaded him to hold the story for a week in exchange for an exclusive interview with Yeltsin about his health, but then went ahead and made an announcement about the surgery. Later on, the president's absences from work became longer and more frequent, and he didn't serve out his term, handing over the presidency to Vladimir Putin. I doubt, however, that Yeltsin knew that Putin would roll back most of the democratic reforms and business freedoms.

The U.S. of 2016 is not Russia in the mid-1990s, but Clinton should release her medical records, and she should talk frankly to voters about her health. Unpleasant information may come out, but if she doesn't come clean, she will exacerbate what is arguably a bigger problem for her: Many voters don't trust her. Yeltsin made that mistake -- his popularity dropped quickly after he had to admit that he'd been hiding his poor health. Few people were sorry to see him go when he stepped down on the last day of 1999.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net