Our First Lady sure beats their First Lady.
Not that it was a contest, of course -- but Barbara Bush's speech to graduating seniors at Wellesley College in Massachusetts yesterday, aired on all the networks, was a rock'em-sock'em smash hit, while Raisa Gorbachev's was just your standard graduation address.
Mrs. Bush's remarks were expertly written and beautifully delivered. She's dynamite.
"One of the best commencement speeches I've ever heard," Tom Brokaw forgivably editorialized on NBC once Mrs. Bush had finished her 10 1/2-minute address. Anchor Reid Collins on CNN declared it "clearly a victorious day for Barbara Bush as well as for Mrs. Gorbachev."
Mrs. Bush's was a truly disarming performance, since there had been advance consternation at Wellesley about the selection of Mrs. Bush as speaker. Some said they would have preferred Alice Walker, author of "The Color Purple." The First Lady (or "the First Woman," as Collins awkwardly referred to her) mentioned the controversy in the speech and got humor out of it without making light of it.
She waved her feminist credentials convincingly, and she wowed the crowd with a hip reference that began, "Because, as Ferris Bueller said on his day off ..." When that produced a prolonged cheer, she ad-libbed, "I'm not going to tell George you clapped more for Ferris than you clapped for George."
Mrs. Bush even ventured to explain what some might consider hard to fathom: her affection for the president. She fell for him in part, she said, because "he made me laugh." You have to take her word on something like that.
With Mrs. Bush in the forefront, and with Dan Quayle in the background, the administration continued to put forth an image of crisp high competence during the second day of TV's coverage of the Washington summit.
Quayle actually did poke his little blond head out in the afternoon, emerging from the Soviet Embassy after a 45-minute chat with Mikhail Gorbachev on the subject, he said, of space exploration. Quayle answered a few reporters' questions on CNN and then slipped into a waiting limousine.
CNN and C-SPAN had lots of summit coverage during the day, but much of it was inconsequential or merely atmospheric, and the other networks shied away from live interruptions of regular programming except for the speeches at Wellesley.
CBS marred its coverage of Mrs. Bush's speech by having correspondent Edie Magnus, on the scene, divulge some of Mrs. Bush's remarks, and jokes, from the prepared text. Magnus blabbed over Wellesley President Nannerl Keohane's introduction of Mrs. Bush. On CNN, Keohane could be heard calling her "the most popular First Lady of our time."
When Magnus shut up, anchor Dan Rather said, "So now, we'll pick up the introduction," and he said that at exactly the moment Keohane concluded it. Anyway, CBS did get the whole Bush speech in.
When Mrs. Gorbachev spoke, ABC again tried a gimmick it had used the previous day by supplying its own interpreter, but this was merely messy, since ABC's interpreter spoke over the translation coming from the stage. The official interpreter said "this magnificent occasion" and ABC's guy said "this major event."
After a couple minutes of this confusion, the ABC interpreter said a loud "Okay!" and stopped talking, obviously cued by an ABC producer to can it.
Mrs. Gorbachev has the habit of clapping whenever she hears clapping, so on the few occasions her speech was interrupted with applause, she applauded too. She was "applauding back to her audience, not applauding herself -- necessarily," said ABC's Peter Jennings, who noted understatedly of the speeches that Mrs. Bush's was "much more personal" and Mrs. Gorbachev's "somewhat more political."
Meanwhile, back in Washington, it was continually impressive how much access is being granted to television cameras for summit events. That included a Gorbachev breakfast meeting at the embassy with U.S. senators and representatives. CNN aired most of it live, but you had to be an awfully faithful student of foreign affairs to find it absorbing.
Afterward, outside the embassy, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine), one of the guests, told reporters, "None of us were aware that it was being televised live." Yeah, right. Among those in the viewing audience, though, was George Bush, who later in the morning told Gorbachev he'd watched the meeting on TV.
At 6:13 p.m., the first official summit event of the day aired live, as Bush and Gorbachev met in the East Room to sign "joint statements" on chemical warfare, nuclear arms reductions and trade. Bush and Gorbachev played dueling podiums, each making a short speech.
The ceremony was impressive, but it wasn't moving, not in the way Ronald Reagan's treaty signings with Gorbachev were. Obviously that's partly because the Reagan-Gorbachev encounters were genuine firsts, and also because Reagan's telegenic theatricality heightened the drama.
Let's face it: There's a charisma gap. And Gorbachev has been tirelessly exploiting it with his impromptu press chats and by popping out of his limo and saying yoo-hoo, cameras and mikes scrambling to record it all.
He managed to perpetrate another of his drive-by photo ops again yesterday on Connecticut Avenue, leaving the limo to wave and smile for the surging crowd on the street. But Bush headed Gorbachev off at a White House pass when he tried to hold another press conference upon arrival.
Gorby certainly got a workout yesterday, and with much of it on television -- some presumably beamed back to the U.S.S.R. -- he had to maintain a consistently cheerful and charmed demeanor. And he did, as one group after another came forward at the embassy to present him with awards. Gorbachev even kept an enviably straight face while a woman sang him a long song of Gorbapraise that included the line "And we weep to see the greatness of it all."
Earlier, when Gorbachev was given the FDR Freedom Medal, CNN anchor Bernard Shaw surveyed the attending guests and marveled, "It's utterly fascinating to look at the faces, the faces of Americana in this room." It would have been even more fascinating if CNN had bothered to identify them. At times like these, CNN looks tacky.
One guest easily recognized was Walter Cronkite, the former CBS News anchor. As at other summit affairs, the line between the reporters and participants got a little blurry here. The FDR medal was presented by diplomat William vanden Heuvel, president of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. Vanden Heuvel's daughter Katrina was serving as a CBS News consultant yesterday.
Her husband, Princeton professor Stephen Cohen, who has also been on the air as a CBS News consultant, was at the FDR award ceremony as a guest.
Andrea Mitchell, who reported on Mrs. Bush's speech from Wellesley for NBC (and was unceremoniously drowned out by ceremonial music), was a guest at Thursday night's state dinner.
It's a small world, all right. Sometimes, maybe too small.
Mrs. Bush's speech was particularly welcome for the healthful humor it brought to a long and sober-faced summit week. Generally, the summit has not been a prime source of comedy on TV, but then, NBC's David Letterman has slunk away on yet another of his week-long vacations. Last week, though, he did say that one of Quayle's top 10 summit duties would be "learning how to curtsy."
On CNN's pathetic "Showbiz Today," an inane puppet show starring a mock Bush and Gorbachev was attempted. It was an embarrassing failure.
Johnny Carson did a nasty joke about Mrs. Gorbachev's hairdo Thursday night that recalled some of the cruel barbs directed at Nina Khrushchev in the '50s. To judge from the studio audience reaction, the public is not going to be very receptive to Raisa ridicule.
But Carson did have a less hostile, more affable joke about Gorbachev. Gorby dealt with some of his domestic economic problems before leaving the Soviet Union, Carson noted. "He gave a speech, and he said, 'No new taxes. Read my head.' "
Exhausted network news departments are definitely not laughing about this, however: Word spread yesterday that there will be two more summits this year.