The photograph was one symbol of progress in the superpower summit: Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev holding hands at the Soviet United Nations mission in Geneva. For their governments, the two “tea summits” between the wives of the U.S. and Soviet leaders were well-orchestrated public relations encounters. For the press, they provided a break from the summit news blackout. Still, when the two wives shared confections and confidences last week, they forged another bond between their husbands and their countries.
“There are very important things being discussed here,” declared Nancy Reagan in frustration at one point with the attention paid to apparel and appearances. Added Raisa Gorbachev: “All we can do, we will do.”
That insistence that their talks were an important part of the summit followed a storm of protest over presummit remarks by White House chief of staff Donald Regan.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Regan said that women would not “understand [missile] throw weights or what is happening in Afghanistan or what is happening in human rights.”
Women, he said, would be drawn to such “human interest stuff” as the tea parties.
That angered many women —and led to top-level disclaimers. Mikhail Gorbachev said that both men and women “are interested in having peace for themselves.” Ronald Reagan insisted that his aide was simply misinterpreted. When asked whether women understand substantive issues, Nancy Reagan replied firmly, “I am sure they do.”
Nancy Reagan initiated the tea summits by inviting her Soviet counterpart to a late afternoon get-together at the Maison de Saussure, an 18th-century grey stone château. And the U.S. First Lady, as she is officially known, seemed determined to put her nervous guest at ease. Over almond herbal tea and freshly baked cookies, the two women discussed through interpreters their husbands, their nations and their shared hopes for a “better understanding.” And they exchanged invitations to visit each other’s country. Concluded Nancy Reagan: “She is a very nice lady.” Raisa Gorbachev reciprocated the next day by hosting a tea at the
Soviet UN mission. There, on a gold plush couch in a small drawing room, the women sampled cabbage pie and caviar.
Those two encounters were serene interludes in the busy itineraries that both women maintained, usually followed by the news media. Mrs. Reagan visited a Lausanne drug rehabilitation centre, toured the medieval town of St. Prex and accompanied American youngsters on a boat tour of Lake Geneva. Mrs. Gorbachev visited Geneva
municipal offices, a watch museum, a Swiss farm and the library where Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Communist Party, studied during exile in Geneva. Both women joined Ursula Furgler, the wife of Swiss President Kurt Furgler, in a ceremony to bury a metal time capsule in the cornerstone of a new Red Cross Museum.
The soft-spoken Reagan, sporting clothes by American designers Adolfo and Galanos, scored high marks with fashion critics. The assured Gorbachev appeared chic in fur-trimmed coats, and she caught her hosts off guard with impromptu remarks. At an exhibition of restored watches and clocks she declared, “This is what we should be doing—restoring things instead of destroying things.” Both women professed disdain for summit frivolities. Declared Nancy Reagan of the media’s attention to dress fashions: “I really think that it is a little silly. What somebody wears or does not wear
really is not terribly important.”
Still, the two women clearly prepared for their meetings with as much care as the delegations accompanying their husbands. Freely acknowledging that the success of a summit often depends on what a former U.S. official described as “atmospherics,” the Americans helped Nancy Reagan rehearse for the summit with briefing papers from the National Security Council and she read several books about the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, many Kremlin-watchers said they were fascinated by Raisa Gorbachev’s high-profile schedule. First Ladies do not exist in Soviet protocol or practice—and Raisa is not usually identified by Soviet television or newspapers when she accompanies her husband on trips. Last week Soviet television showed film of the two wives tucking the time capsule into the Red Cross cornerstone. For the Soviets, she was clearly a source of pride. Said a 33-year-old Moscow artist who gave her name only as Volodya: “She’s good publicity for us. You Westerners must have thought all our women were barrel-shaped grannies like Brezhnev’s wife. Raisa helps put a human face on Russia.” And for Westerners, it was a clear indication that spousal summitry has become another path to peace.
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