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The Presidency: A Wish for Clear Sky

3 minute read
Hugh Sidey

It was Charlie Wick’s idea a year ago. The USIA director penned a letter to the chief Soviet spokesman, Leonid Zamyatin, about having their two leaders talk to the Soviet and American people directly over television. There was no answer from Moscow. At the Geneva summit eleven months later, Wick was walking offstage from a ceremony when he ran into Zamyatin, whom he had never met “I didn’t answer your letter,” Zamyatin confessed with a sheepish smile. Replied Wick: “I was wondering if you read your mail.” Both men laughed. The spirit of the moment had seized them and, more important, their leaders. The historic exchange of television messages on New Year’s Day was the result.

Now to keep it going. Wick will jet off for Moscow Sunday to begin setting up the cultural exchanges agreed on by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva. Wedged in among the ideas on sports and arts are some new thoughts for television exposure. Wick is convinced that one of the reasons there has been no major new war for six years is the ability of people to look each other in the eye across continents and either praise worthy achievements or condemn villainous behavior. “Foreign policy is no longer the exclusive domain of the elites,” he says. “Telecommunication has made it possible for governments to speak directly to people in other countries. The impact is unparalleled in the world’s history.”

There is a dark side to instant communication, already understood by terrorists. In the short run, the cameras can be exploited for propaganda. In the long run, fortunately, the truth asserts itself. Reagan is so certain of the potential of global imagery that he has begun to ponder how best to cast this year’s summit in the U.S. so that doubters all over the world can see Gorbachev on the U.S. stage.

Last week, as if by legerdemain, Reagan and Gorbachev leaped out of the tape cans simultaneously 5,000 miles apart, proclaiming 1986 a “year of peace.” Early estimates suggest that as many as 60 million Americans may have seen Gorbachev in an ornate Kremlin chamber urge “saving up, bit by bit, the most precious capital there is–trust among nations and peoples.” That’s the lingo of capitalists, and it must have found its mark. There was only a smattering of complaints from viewers who preferred to see the Rose Parade or the soap All My Children. No such gripes were reported from Moscow, where Reagan led the 9 p.m. news. His appearance was not billed in advance, but the Soviet audience may have reached 150 million. For them, it was a mild shock, certainly a rarity. The last time a U.S. President had come on, eyeball to lens, was in 1972, when Richard Nixon appeared. Reagan, the Great Communicator, made his plea “to try to reduce the suspicions and mistrust between us,” then tried a little shaky Russian: “Let us look forward to a future of chistoye nyebo [clear sky] for all mankind.”

The brief message drew some revealing responses from Moscow’s people. Said Larissa, 27, a textile-factory administrator: “We have a Russian proverb that goes, ‘After 40 years of life, you will start paying for your actions in your face.’ The lines in [Reagan’s] face reflected good–not the evil that we’ve been led to expect … I really think that seeing him for three minutes is worth more than hearing about him for 30 years.”

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