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The Presidency: Sizing Up the Opposition

3 minute read
Hugh Sidey

Ronald Reagan has this fantasy in which he and Mikhail Gorbachev go into a White House room alone, the Soviet boss stripped of Kremlin apparatchiks. Accompanied by only an American interpreter, they talk about the world, their countries and themselves. Reagan would bet a cautious buck or two that they would reach a remarkable human understanding on how to ease tension around this overarmed and overheated globe. It will not happen, of course, but . . .

Gorbachev intrigues Reagan. Is he a steely Marxist-Leninist dressed and mannered for the moment, or is he really orchestrating one of the world’s most momentous changes? In their first two encounters, Reagan found Gorbachev’s eyes questioning but not hostile, his remarks at times sharp but not irrational. In his new book, Perestroika, Gorbachev comes out as a Reagan booster. The Reykjavik summit “marked a turning point in world history,” writes Gorbachev. “This ((East-West)) dialogue has now broken free of the confusion of technicalities, of data comparisons and political arithmetic.” That is right down Reagan’s uncluttered alley.

Next week’s summit shapes up as one of the most interesting human encounters in years. It is going to be one “great communicator” against another chelovek s darom obshcheniya. Gorbachev has nudged Reagan aside as the central actor on the world stage. The Soviet impresario is young and just beginning his reign. Reagan is old and phasing out. Gorbachev has also become part of our politics: his 54% approval rating in the U.S. Gallup poll is higher than that of most American officials. In the secret files that are being sent to the President by his experts, Gorbachev is viewed as ready to deal if he gets an offer. Should Reagan hint that he could ease up on SDI, the Soviet Chairman might be willing to climb into blue jeans (well, maybe some corduroys) and fly to the California ranch for a fireside discussion on the next step in reducing nuclear missiles.

Gorbachev will be a baldy in the midst of a culture of heavy hair worship. He resembles no American more than TV’s Ed Asner. And the wily Soviet knows that the more smiles he beams around this country via television, the better his chances of achieving friendly relations with the White House’s next occupant.

The change of pace from the immense and ornate halls of the Kremlin to the small, simple rooms of the White House is apt to please him. He does not like ostentation. So the Reagan folks will ply their important visitor with plain native dishes like Maryland crab and pumpkin pie. CIA analysts believe Gorbachev’s alimentary canal can handle even Reagan’s favorite, macaroni and cheese. But will he be able to digest the Prince of Darkness, Richard Perle, who is scheduled to attend the state dinner? In Geneva, Gorbachev cooled at the sight of Perle, the former Assistant Secretary of Defense and a powerful skeptic about Soviet intentions for the past 20 years.

At the White House they think Reagan might ease such tension by pointing out that when Moscow Party Chief Boris Yeltsin included Gorbachev’s wife Raisa in his criticism, he was sacked. After White House Chief of Staff Don Regan hung up on Nancy Reagan, he too got the ax. In unison there is hope: a toast to the ladies.

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