Television time is the new global currency. It is good anywhere. It is of universally recognized value. Terrorists, sadly, may have been among the first political beings to recognize and exploit this fact, but yesterday, a new year began with an international exchange of television time by President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that seemed an unarguably positive gesture.
The swap of brief taped messages was essentially the result of a dare. U.S. officials had taunted the Russians for being chicken to put Ronald Reagan, El Communicator Grande, on Soviet TV. In late December, yesterday's electronic neighborly visit was set up. As it turns out, agreeing to do it was the news story, and actually doing it an anticlimax, except as a piece of symbolism into which varying degrees of hopefulness might be read.
What was said by the two world leaders was not the kind of stuff to shock anybody out of his skin. But that it was said, on television here and in the Soviet Union, seemed of encouraging importance. Fortunately, neither speech was so long that viewers were likely to be bored. It's not good when people are bored by steps, however tentative, toward ensuring the survival of the human race.
All three commercial TV networks in this country aired both speeches just after 1 p.m., at about the time Reagan's was being transmitted on Soviet TV. The Cable News Network showed the messages then and repeated them only an hour or so later as part of an international report. CBS was clearly the most anxious to get the things aired and over with since, as anchor Charles Kuralt told viewers, those terribly urgent New Year's Day football games were waiting to be played, and broadcast.
"We'll have you back to regular programming in a few minutes," Kuralt said with soothing reassurance to viewers before one word about peace from Gorbachev or Reagan. CBS returned to programming immediately following the taped messages. ABC and NBC stayed on the air with what might loosely be termed analysis. Nobody was getting very excited, and that seemed sensible. However, CBS may have gone too far in not getting very excited. It may have given the impression of considering the two messages a nuisance.
President Reagan, not surprisingly, looked better and spoke more naturally to the camera than Gorbachev, whose appearance was preceded by a pompous fanfare that accompanied the words "Soviet TV" emblazoned on the screen, part of a graphic display that suggested a low-budget edition of "Entertainski Tonight." Gorbachev entered a formal-looking room, sat down at a desk and slowly put on his reading glasses, all wasted motions, then spoke in a dry monotone in Russian to the camera.
He never did quite make eye contact.
Production values were nil. Gorbachev sat in front of a wall covered with an ornate brocade wallpaper. If he had talked only a few minutes longer, a viewer might have been tempted to start looking for hidden drawings of faces, flowers and trees in the design. Gorbachev began by rather quaintly addressing his audience as "Dear Americans" and concluded by saying, "To every American family, I wish good health, peace and happiness."
What, no "prosperity"? Reagan included that in his wishes for all of humankind.
Certainly Gorbachev defied the traditional stereotype of Soviet leaders who've appeared on TV. He did not come across as a Cold War cliche'. On the other hand, the much-vaunted charisma of this nouveau rouge superstar was not much in evidence. Although not precisely in the spirit of Geneva, U.S. viewers must have been saying to themselves as they watched the two world leaders, "Hey, our guy sure is better than their guy."
Talkin' 'bout Our Guy . . . our guy! our guy! Even our guy, though, has looked better on TV than he did for yesterday's message to the Soviets. Reagan appeared a little weary, and he was uncharacteristically slumped inside his suit (maybe he didn't want to look too eager). The suit seemed to be swallowing him as he sat at a simple desk surrounded by such treasured national icons as the flag and a picture of Nancy Reagan in a red dress. Also, a poinsettia, to give a balance of red on the right-hand side of the screen.
"Good evening, this is Ronald Reagan, president of the United States of America," Reagan began briskly and perhaps too rapidly. There were no ceremonial trumpets. He mentioned during his talk that he was "the elected representative of the American people" (Elected, elected -- am I coming through over there?). He mispronounced "unique" when he said Americans consider each human being to be "a unake creation of God." However, he spoke his five-minute message straight through, with no edits, whereas Gorbachev's tape was edited at least twice, maybe three times, perhaps to cover fluffs, perhaps to eliminate rapprochement later deemed excessive.
Reagan was cordial enough to speak a couple of Russian phrases in his remarks. Gorbachev did not use any English. It is hard to imagine Soviet citizens tuning in for Reagan's message and not coming away with at least the vestige of a warm feeling about him. It is very hard to imagine U.S. citizens watching the Gorbachev performance and coming away with the notion that this chap is some sort of charming international pussycat.
CBS was the most insistent of the networks about labeling Gorbachev's appearance "official." The phrase "Official Soviet Tape" was twice superimposed on the screen as he spoke, as was the phrase "Official Soviet Translation" to cover the sound track. What's the deal here -- was CBS fearful viewers tuning in would think it had been taken over by the commies at last? Were there worries about what some kook would say in reference to this broadcast at the next CBS stockholders meeting? President Reagan's appearance was not festooned with any print about it being an "Official White House Tape." And neither ABC nor NBC felt compelled to keep reminding viewers that Gorbachev's appearance was official, though NBC did supply a helpful printed translation of his remarks across the bottom of the screen.
No one seemed to realize that the phrase "the winter of our discontent," attributed by Gorbachev to John Steinbeck, who used it as the title of a 1961 novel, actually originated with William Shakespeare. It is in the opening line of "Richard III."
While CBS News rushed off to parades and football, ABC News and NBC News at least took stabs at following the messages with comment. Unfortunately, nobody told Tom Brokaw that 1986 had arrived, so he said new summit talks between the United States and the Soviets had been delayed until "September of next year." After pithy observations from NBC White House correspondent Chris Wallace in Palm Springs, Calif., where the Reagans are holidaying, NBC went to four supposedly typical Americans who had watched the messages on an NBC monitor at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. Only two got to comment, and the gimmick proved embarrassingly unproductive.
ABC's Peter Jennings talked with the network's Moscow correspondent, Walter Rodgers, and with White House correspondent Sam Donaldson, who was mysteriously positioned at the all-but-deserted White House for a tiresome stand-up in which he repeated his standard stale Reagan rap. Sam looked annoyed at having his holiday interrupted.
Commentators used the word "unprecedented" in referring to the exchange, but no one seemed so foolhardy as to label it "momentous." It wasn't momentous, probably, but it was a moment. As teleplomatic occurrences go, the most that can perhaps be said for this one is that it was harmless, but in times like these, and considering the alternatives, harmlessness counts for something.