He looked like a guy who could tell a good joke or play a mean game of poker. "A Conversation With Mikhail S. Gorbachev," last night's exclusive NBC News interview, gave Americans their most intimate and penetrating look yet at the Soviet leader -- indeed, probably the best TV close-up ever of any Soviet leader.
Gorbachev seemed assured, relaxed and amiable in the interview, conducted by anchor Tom Brokaw over the weekend in the Kremlin's Council of Ministers building. The two men sat across a small table, with notes and two green teacups before them. The interview ran for an hour with no apparent edits and no commercial breaks.
What mattered about the interview was not that it contained blinding revelations, which it did not, but that it transpired at all, a fact that had to constitute some sort of significant stride. "We have built up a new atmosphere in the country, an atmosphere of glasnost, openness, and we have plans to go on moving forward," Gorbachev said through his interpreter. Just hearing him say it so directly made it suddenly palpable and genuine.
And when, in response to questions about the upcoming Washington summit and the possibilities for reducing nuclear arms, Gorbachev said, "There are real prospects ahead of us," the idea that a nuclear treaty with meaning might actually be signed next week began to sink in. Cynicism became at least momentarily less chic. You look for signs of hope; here was one.
Gorbachev proved a far cry from the last really charismatic Soviet leader to get much TV exposure, the portly and bellicose Nikita S. Khrushchev. Gorbachev never looked irked or affronted by the questions, and even after Brokaw repeated a question, and Gorbachev replied, "I think I have answered your question in toto," he was smiling.
It is a disarming smile. Maybe even a disarmament smile.
Naturally there was much to inspire skepticism, if not outright hoots, in what Gorbachev said. It's hard to keep a straight face when a Soviet leader says, "We cannot, however strong we might be ... dictate our values or impose our way of life upon others." Or when he says, on the subject of Soviet Jews denied the right to emigrate, that "only those who cannot leave because of state security reasons" are denied exit visas. He sounded more in line with stereotype when he said of his modernization and reforms, "We will not allow any adventurism."
Perhaps the most newsworthy item in the interview was Gorbachev's admission that the Soviets are researching their own equivalent of Ronald Reagan's SDI, or "Star Wars," outer space missile defense system. But this wasn't anything Brokaw cleverly pulled out of him. In fact Brokaw glossed right over the possibility of a Soviet SDI while leading up to a question on Afghanistan. Gorbachev had to steer him back to the news.
The Star Wars scoop was the only nugget from the interview that made the ABC and CBS evening newscasts last night. Dan Rather cited it and credited "an interview with Tom Brokaw of NBC News." Peter Jennings, on ABC, also credited "an interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw." Neither CBS News nor ABC News has yet been able to obtain its own Gorbachev interview. CBS was turned down flat by the Russians.
On "NBC Nightly News," the interview was of course lavishly ballyhooed, first in a six-minute segment of excerpts that opened the show, then in a two-minute feature piece that ended it. NBC News has a promotion machine second to none, and it was in high gear for the Gorbachev coup.
Gorbachev must know he's charming, because he attempted to beguile Brokaw on a number of occasions. He began one answer by saying, "Mr. Brokaw, you will not be offended if I'm forthright and say that I assume that I have a very educated man sitting across the table from me, and a very well-informed one." Brokaw lapped that up. Later Gorbachev suggested that a question about the Soviet farm crisis had been slipped to Brokaw by President Reagan. Brokaw grinned and said, "No, this information is widely available in America to presidents and humble reporters alike."
"Humble reporters"! Gimme a breakski!
It really was a mutual bull session, when you come right down to it. But the chance to observe Gorbachev at such close range carried undeniable fascination. For NBC News, however, the victory has its Pyrrhic side. CBS was turned down, the Kremlin indicated, because Rather and colleagues have been too tough on the Soviets over their brutal policies in Afghanistan. NBC News may feel a certain stigma in being deemed the network that the Russians considered the friendliest and, implicitly, safest harbor.
If only Brokaw had the guts to ask Gorbachev, "Why did you agree to talk only to one network and not all three?"
Brokaw was not particularly tough on the Soviet leader. He did indeed bring up Afghanistan and Soviet Jews and human rights (questions Gorbachev evaded, for the most part, with insufferably windy rhetorical runaround), but he didn't counterpunch with follow-ups. And NBC agreed as part of the ground rules that Gorbachev was allowed to make an uninterrupted opening statement. It droned on for eight numbing minutes.
During that meandering speech, one shot of Brokaw made it look as though he were sitting there winding his watch. Who could blame him if he were? Later he did try to interrupt Gorbachev during one of the lengthy answers but the Soviet leader plunged on.
Cameras caught Gorbachev's expressive hand gestures, or spied him playing with the cord of his lavaliere microphone. One heard little of his actual voice because the strident chant of the interpreter cut in quickly. Gorbachev made a specific reference to NBC early in the hour and near the end referred to the audience as "my American viewers," suggesting the propagandistic opportunities of the appearance were anything but lost on him. He must surely have read, too, about Reagan's skillful uses of television to obtain direct access to the American home.
Gorby, however, is no Gipper.
After a question on the Berlin Wall (Gorbachev is not taking it down, surprise surprise), Brokaw said, somewhat smirkily, "Well, I don't think we're going to lower the wall here this evening, but maybe we can do something about human rights." Not bloody likely. Doing something about human rights was not a reasonable goal for this interview. Neither, probably, given the circumstances, was Getting At The Truth.
But under such intense video scrutiny, even the most cunning or manipulative of subjects is bound to reveal some germ, some aspect, some particle of truth. And the truth millions of viewers may have deduced about Gorbachev was that you might not trust him, but you couldn't help but like him.
Was NBC News being "used"? If so it was mutual using. And fascinating.