Although the talk was of peace, a public-relations war raged throughout last week between the two superpower leaders. On the eve of this week’s Washington summit President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev each tried to win the approval of the American people for his own vision of superpower relations. But the two leaders’ performances in key television appearances provided a curious reversal of roles. During an unusual interview with NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, Gorbachev offered no concessions on U.S.-Soviet irritants such as human rights and Afghanistan. Still, the Soviet leader was positive on the issue of disarmament, and his polished and relaxed television manner clearly was popular with many Americans. By contrast, Reagan, the former actor, appeared uneasy and often unsure of his answers when questioned by a panel of four U.S. TV news anchormen later in the week. But more arresting than his performance was Reagan’s message—a tough rebuke to former allies who oppose his newly conciliatory policies. While affirming that he still views
the Soviet Union as “an evil empire,” Reagan attacked Republican right wingers who threatened to block ratification of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Force (INF) treaty that he was to sign with Gorbachev this week. Also, he refused to link arms control issues with human rights, and he seemed to absolve Gorbachev personally for Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, saying that Gorbachev had inherited the problem from his predecessors. Right-wing reaction was swift and bitter. Said Richard Viguerie, a major conservative fund raiser and longtime Reagan supporter: “He’s gone soft. We feel alienated, abandoned and rejected.”
Some analysts expressed skepticism about Reagan’s apparent conversion to conciliation with Moscow. But Reagan said that there was a good chance that he and Gorbachev would take “a giant step” toward the difficult next goal in arms reduction-halving Soviet and U.S. stockpiles of long-range strategic weapons.
Reagan will find it even harder to win conservative support for that goal than for the comparatively modest INF agreement, which will abolish
the superpowers’ arsenals of medium-range missiles. Although U.S. public-opinion polls show widespread popular support for the INF treaty, Vice-President George Bush is the only one of the six Republican presidential hopefuls to give it unqualified support. And two former administration officials—Richard Perle and Frank Gaffney, who recently left top jobs in the Pentagon—publicly attacked the President. Meanwhile, several conservative senators warned that they would press for drastic amendments to the pact when it goes to Capitol Hill in January for ratification.
Reagan responded sharply. His former allies were “ignorant of the advances that have been made in verification,” he said, adding: “I think that some of the people who are objecting the most, whether they realize it or not, basically down in their deepest thoughts have accepted that war is inevitable and that there must come to be a war between the two superpowers.”
In the U.S.-Soviet propaganda battle for the approval of the American public, the Soviets have a tremendous
asset in the genial personality and liberalizing policies of the 56-yearold Gorbachev. A poll of 1,553 Americans released last week by CBS News and The New York Times found that 38 per cent had a favorable opinion of the Soviet leader—only seven per cent less than the proportion who endorsed Reagan’s overall performance in office. And a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that among liberals, Democrats and university graduates, the majority of respondents thought that Gorbachev had “a better understanding of international problems” than Reagan.
While their husbands fought the propaganda battle,
Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev were involved in a minor tussle of their own. In mid-November Nancy Reagan had invited Gorbachev to tea and a tour of the White House personal quarters. When she received no response by last Monday, a White House aide reportedly sent a reminder demanding a reply within 24 hours. On Wednesday the answer came: the Soviet first lady would prefer morning coffee to afternoon tea. White House sources said privately that they were fuming over Raisa Gorbachev’s apparently offhand manner.
A similar tiff occurred over the question of dress for the state dinner Reagan was to give on Tuesday night. The normal dress code for such occasions is black tie, but the Soviets, true to their egalitarian creed, said that they preferred day dress. The Reagans insisted on black tie—and at week’s end Washingtonians were waiting eagerly to see what the Gor-
bachevs would wear. Such pre-summit skirmishes in protocol only added to what one Washington merchant called “Gorby fever.” Indeed, shopkeepers were already doing brisk business in sometimes bizarre summit souvenirs—such as hammer-andsickle earrings and dog toys in the shape of Gorbachev’s head.
Meanwhile, as the summit countdown intensified, the Kremlin made a
dramatic gesture on human rights, allowing 73 prominent Jewish activists to leave the Soviet Union with their families. Still, this year’s total so far of 7,216 exit visas is well short of the 51,330 granted in 1979. Said Morris Abram, head of a coalition of U.S. Jewish groups established for the summit: “Glasnost so far doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. There has been no profound change in the attitude to Jewish emigration.” In an attempt to encourage such a change, about 100,000 protesters from the United States and Canada were set to stage a human rights march through Washington the day before Gorbachev’s arrival.
For Reagan, a dramatic new advance in arms control this week would help reverse the rapid decline of his once seemingly invincible administration. The Iran-contra scandal, his two ill-fated Supreme Court
nominations and his failure to take effective action after the October Wall Street crash have combined to tarnish the White House image.
Clearly, Reagan’s advisers considered that a successful summit would go a long way toward restoring the President’s lustre.
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