Mikhail Gorbachev seems finally to be learning that you can communicate with pictures as well as with words.
The networks may actually be realizing that too.
As a political thriller, the Washington summit was probably more politics than thrills. If it failed to produce stunning moments of statesmanship, however, it still managed stunning moments of television, some of them the result of clever image engineering by the Soviets.
Some -- but not all. Expert tape editors at NBC News put an assortment of summit moments together in a dazzling montage that ended NBC's report on Sunday's joint press conference. From the official to the personal -- from the Gorbachevs landing at Andrews Air Force Base to Barbara Bush taking Raisa Gorbachev's hand to lead her safely through the milling throng at Wellesley College -- the summit generated vital, hopeful imagery.
"Some might even say it was a pretty dull four days," noted Dan Rather of CBS News on the lack of "blockbuster" agreements. On ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," George Will called the summit an "empty ritual." On the syndicated "McLaughlin Group," one panelist referred to it as "this irrelevant summit."
But the pundits rarely take the pictures into account -- pictures like the Bushes and Gorbachevs clapping cheerfully as a singer belted out "Funiculi, Funicula" after a state dinner in the Soviet Embassy, Mrs. Bush singing along and Mr. Bush briefly covering his eyes in joshing mock-embarrassment.
Or the simple sight of George and Barbara at the back door of the White House waving farewell to their guests as they headed for the omnipresent limousine. Only NBC had the live picture of President Bush calling out, "Goodbye, and good luck."
Everywhere he went, it seemed, the Soviet president spread Gorbacheer. The sense of euphoria overwhelmed the sense of event. Not even Gorbachev's lamentable and oblivious long-windedness could quite squelch it. George Bush gave a 3 1/2-minute statement at the start of the joint press conference in the East Room yesterday; Gorbachev spoke for nearly 10 minutes before the questions could begin.
David Brinkley, in his closing commentary on "This Week," noted that at his meeting with congressional leaders, Gorbachev had been "rambling, detailed and tedious," but Brinkley found that funny. Gorby was just giving the senators and representatives what they like to give everybody else.
Watching history as it happens is, of course, commonplace in the age of global television, and yet every now and then, confronted with the kind of casually momentous footage that has been plentiful during the summit, you have to stop and think: The world is changing as it hasn't changed in perhaps 50 years, but 50 years ago people didn't see that change instantaneously and in close-up.
Would it have made a difference if they had?
Footage of the Berlin Wall falling was certainly a more dramatic, graphic representation of change than the summit stuff, but the Gorbachevs' visit was a certification, an underlining. So we watched, we listened, we took in as much as we could, and some of us still may have wondered: What will people of future decades, looking back on us, say we were too blind to see?
Maybe if TV had been around to cover Yalta, NBC tape editors could have constructed a montage making that look like a golden harbinger of bliss.
The summit was "designed and orchestrated by both sides to give Gorbachev a much-needed boost at home," Rather said on Saturday night's "CBS Evening News." Igor Malashenko, a member of the Soviet Central Committee who served as a Soviet expert for ABC News, backed up Rather when he assessed it as "almost a surprisingly successful summit" -- from the Soviet point of view.
All the networks had rounded up their usual Soviet experts, and ABC's may have been the best. In addition to Malashenko, they included Adm. William Crowe Jr., former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and one-time guest star on "Cheers." On NBC, Tom Brokaw seemed understandably uncomfortable with Boris Pyadyshev, a Soviet magazine editor who talked mushily but, like Gorby, at great length.
Gorbachev wasn't the only one experiencing image enhancement. Asked by Bob Schieffer to describe the highlight of the event up to that point, Rather said it was unquestionably Barbara Bush's speech at Wellesley.
It was "the best speech made by any person connected with any summit," Rather declared. On Fox TV's "Off the Record" show, Sen. Chuck Robb (D-Va.) also raved. "It was a boffo performance from beginning to end," Robb said. Only crabby Elizabeth Drew on WUSA's "Inside Washington" sounded a sour note, complaining that Mrs. Bush had compared Wellesley's graduating seniors to mermaids -- though the reference had been figurative.
There were other sour notes, having nothing to do with Mrs. Bush. One of the sourest was sounded by United Press International White House reporter Helen Thomas, who devoted one of the first questions at Sunday's press conference to the Palestinians, not a topic high on the summit agenda, if on it at all.
"Beyond words, what guarantees can you give the Palestinians that decisions you made on immigration will not result in a further usurpation of their lands?" Thomas asked. She charged that U.S. policy was insensitive to the Palestinians' problems.
In addition to being bad manners, this sounded more like lobbying than questioning -- advocacy journalism with the journalism removed. Both Bush and Gorbachev dealt with the question politely, however.
Bush handled himself awfully well throughout the summit. If behind the scenes he was rankled at all the attention lavished on Gorby, outwardly it didn't show. There is perhaps something endearing about Bush's public awkwardness, his sense of being nimbly ill at ease. As a TV president, Ronald Reagan was a disarming smoothie; George Bush is turning into a disarming clunk.
Still, Bush's best policy in terms of television would be to yank Barbara into the spotlight as often as possible.
Throughout the coverage, Rather seemed to be struggling to keep himself interested. So did many of the other correspondents and anchors. They must have been encouraged when, at the press conference, Bush said that he and Gorbachev would be meeting again, but "with less formality." That probably means with less television exposure too.
NBC's Brokaw sounded almost relieved when he told viewers that live cameras were not to be allowed at Andrews Air Force Base when the Gorbachevs took off for Minneapolis. But before that, there were gorgeous shots of the couple somewhat reluctantly boarding an Army helicopter parked near the Reflecting Pool. The chopper was followed into the air by, among others, a camera mounted atop the Washington Monument.
On Saturday, CBS's Schieffer compared the agreements reached at the summit to his own golf game -- "a lot of ifs and almosts in what has transpired here." Hard news may have been in relatively short supply at the Washington summit, but soft news can have as much impact on a TV viewer. Where the word falls short, the picture prevails.