The honoree did not come, nor did he even reply to his invitation, but that was not the point. Aleksandr I. Solzehitsyn is thought to be living in a small town in Vermont, very much a non-participant in American culture; he has not appeared on the Johnny Carson show, nor has he seen fit to publish an autobiography describing his childhood fears and sexual history. It is not known if he has eaten at a fastfood restaurant. It is known that he finds much of our music "intolerable," television a "stupor" and publicity "revolting."
Nonetheless, the noted Russian exile and author of "Gulag Archipelago" was honored -- in absentia -- by a dinner given by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a four-year old Washington-based think tank. The center honored Solzehitsyn in a way he might have approved: by publishing his controversial 1978 commencement address at Harvard University and a selection of essays reacting to it, and with an evening highlighted by comments from columnist George F. Will and writer Michael Novak.
In short, it was a focus on ideas, a commodity too often in short supply on the Washington social circuit. If the Americans reacting to Solzhenitsyn's Harvard address have anything in common, it is their almost universal appreciation of his having given them something to talk about -- even if they disagree with what he said. Intellectual malnutrition seems to have been at least temporarily averted, if the plaudits for Solzhenitsyn last night were any evidence.
"Those of us who have tried stand in awe of one thing he's done," said Will in his after-dinner remarks. "Give a commencement address that is remembered two years later."
In that address Solzhenitsyn castigated the West for a lack of "civic courage," spiritual depletion and cultural mediocrity. He criticized a legal system in which conforming to "the letter of the law" is considered the "ultimate solution," and a "free" press that operates -- he said -- under the theory that "everyone is entitled to know everything," and thus crams the "devine souls" of an unresisting public with "gossip, nonsense and vain talk."
In one sense, Will said, he "captured an essentially American impulse and defect . . . a passionate desire to submerge passion . . . to make all individuals like pebbles worn smooth." This stems, he said, from the theory that there is a "saving multiplicity of factions" -- which he called the "Cuisinart theory of government."
Inasmuch as ideas can be seriously discussed in a hotel ballroom where it is impossible to hear anyone over the din of chatter or the expanse of a round dinner table, it was a serious group assembled by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an organization that has been described as "neoconservative" in outlook.
The guests list was eclectic -- two former CIA heads, Richard Helms and William Colby, a scattering of Russian Orthodox priests in long robes and square hats, a local and a national television personality (paul Berry and Richard Valeriani, respectively) and at least two gossip columnists. There were also former Federal Reserve Board chairman Arthur Burns, former Nixon economic adviser Herbert Stein, former chairman of the National Endownment for the Humanities Ronald S. Berman, former CIA operative James J. Angleton, as well as various representatives of such groups as the Charles W. Colson Prison Fellowship and General Motors.
"Nineteen-eighty is a time for two fundamental conceptions of where America ought to be 10 years hince to be debated," said Richard Allen, a former Nixon advisor who is now Ronald Reagan's senior foreign-policy adviser. "Solzhenitsyn has shed an enormous amount of analytical light on problems that confront the United States. His criticisms are designed to help us confront our shortcomings.
Allen was working for Reagan also in 1976 when then-president Ford pointedly did not invite Solzhenitsyn to the White House after he was exiled, a move Ford Took on the advise of Henry Kissinger Rosalynn Carter reacted to the Harvard address by saying, somewhat defensively, that perhaps the Russian exile did not know enough about America.
But several of the guests and speakers last night said that Solzhenitsyn must be viewed as a prophet rather than a political anaylst, a man who speaks about the soul rather than practical reality. "It's a sermon, not political science," said British author Robert Conquest. "He's like an Old Testament prophet with a moral vision . . . the tone is one we're not used to."
Solzhenitsyn was -- and is -- listened to with particular attention because he was Russian, fleeing a communist regime of which he was critical for a free society of which he is also critical. He is voice of doom, predicting the demise of Western society. "The Forces of evil have begun their decisive offensive," he told the Harvard graduates. "You can feel their pressure, yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?"
"We could sum up what Solzhenitsyn is saying by the true story of what was written on a tombstone in England," Will said. "All it said was: 'I told you I was sick.' And if no one listens, it is not Solzhenitsyn's fault."