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The Superwives and the Reporters

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By Judy Mann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 1987; 12:00 AM

The hot story out of the summit is the so-called (by Time magazine, no less) Confrontation of the Superwives. This is the kind of story that emerges and then takes on a life of its own when the original story, in this case the summit and signing of the first nuclear weapons reduction treaty, fails to produce the kind of titillating gossip we all need.

Had General Secretary Gorbachev made a pass at Mary Lou Retton at the White House dinner in his honor, no one would be paying any attention to tensions -- real or imagined -- between Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev. But as far as anyone in the press knows, Gorbachev behaved admirably toward Mary Lou Retton, so there's not much to write about there. And Ron and Mikhail -- as they call each other in private -- seemed to get along splendidly on a man-to-man basis so, again, that doesn't leave a lot of room for speculative gossip, which used to be known as digging for dirt.

It is an unfortunate truth, but a truth nevertheless, that a little friction is good for the news business. You'd never sell a tabloid in New York with the headline "Everything Is Fine Today." You certainly wouldn't sell it if your crosstown competitor was hitting the stands with a banner saying: "Gorby Injures Back in Mary Lou's Love Nest." That's going to be a much more interesting story to read, and a much more interesting story to report. Reporters are human, too, and they'll be using every trick in the reportorial book to find out just what Gorby was doing when he hurt his back.

There are any number of pressures in a summit situation that operate to create confrontations and conflicts, perhaps where none exist. Thus, every encounter between the two first ladies was fraught with underlying signals and tensions. Tea at the White House, which turned into coffee, became a major to-do when Mrs. Gorbachev failed to RSVP to an invitation she had initiated. Much was made of whether she was rude or whether it had stopped being customary for Soviets to RSVP after 1917. Then, once she got to the White House for coffee and a tour, she proceeded to do the unthinkable, which was to chat with reporters. She even called them Americans.

Things quickly got tense. Mrs. Reagan was asked about their relations and said she'd answered that question five times, proving that she can count on her feet. The way she answered, however, became significant: according to news reports, Mrs. Reagan "snapped." This is understandable enough, given the fact she was asked this question right smack in front of her guest, even if she hadn't had to answer the question five times before. To make matters worse, Mrs. Gorbachev, asked whether she would want to live in the White House, referred to it as a museum. And she asked Mrs. Reagan when it had been built and she didn't know the answer, which was sort of embarrassing considering she's lived in the house almost seven years.

At the end of the summit, the White House told reporters that Mrs. Gorbachev had actually asked Mrs. Reagan about news stories that the two women did not like each other and Mrs. Reagan had said the stories were "trivial and silly." This doesn't bode well for loosening up on press censorship in the Soviet Union.

This whole business began, apparently, when Mrs. Gorbachev showed up at the Reykjavik summit and Mrs. Reagan did not. Close observers of these matters quickly detected a pattern: Mrs. Gorbachev was trying to upstage Mrs. Reagan. What else do the two women married to the most powerful men in the world have to do with their time? From then on, much was made of a rivalry between the two women. Who stole which scene? Who was wearing the most expensive fur? Who was most appropriately dressed?

Poor Mrs. Gorbachev, for all her celebrated shopping in European capitals, came off second best on the fashion front when she showed up at the White House before noon in a black cocktail dress adorned with rhinestones. This was considered a most perplexing lapse in taste. What people over here forget sometimes is that Mrs. Gorbachev is married to the leader of the proletariat and doesn't get a chance to dress up very often. This is a man who wore a business suit to a state dinner, so you get an idea of what she's up against.

Ordinarily, a spat between two first ladies could be dismissed as an entertaining story. The business between those two first ladies, however, could get serious, particularly if their husbands get annoyed and involved, so it would be better all around if any competition between them isn't blown out of proportion. Let's keep this tempest in the teapot.


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