Call it glasnost, chemistry or just plain superpower politics, but Barbara Bush and Raisa Gorbachev proved one thing at last week's summit talks: The wives of American and Soviet presidents don't have to provide the comic relief in order to grab headlines.
It's okay to like each other.
And at Wellesley College on Friday, they announced it to the world. They held hands at times, beamed at each other and left little doubt that their friendship was for real.
Mrs. Bush had scored a coup by bringing the Soviet First Lady with her. She also had the last word in a national debate over her selection as commencement speaker. When she and Mrs. Gorbachev walked in, 5,000 people roared in approval. Mrs. Bush was obviously pleased. "Pretty nice!" she noted.
She behaved more like a mother hen showing off her chick than the most popular person in the country (as a recent Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll found her) and graciously made room in her spotlight for a Raisa Gorbachev Americans hadn't seen before.
Unlike at past summits when the Soviet First Lady often came across as a hard-line ideologue trying to sell communism to a society that wasn't buying any, this Raisa Gorbachev seemed to have mended her ways since her Cold War days with Nancy Reagan. She appeared less defensive, more restrained and better coached than she had been during the 1987 Washington summit when her manners were called into question.
Then, she dismissed the White House as "an official house ... humanly speaking, a human being would like to live in a regular house. This is like a museum." And she never did respond to Nancy Reagan's invitation to tea.
"I was offended," Mrs. Reagan later wrote in her memoirs, "My Turn." "In the circle we moved in, you don't ignore an invitation from a head of state or his wife."
There were signs of a thaw when Mrs. Gorbachev and Mrs. Reagan met in San Francisco Monday.
"During their conversation, Mrs. Gorbachev mentioned press accounts suggesting she and Mrs. Reagan did not get along," said a statement issued yesterday by Ronald Reagan's office. "Mrs. Gorbachev told Mrs. Reagan she regretted these reports because they were not true. Mrs. Reagan told Mrs. Gorbachev that she, too, was disturbed by such reports because she also knew they were not true."
Revisionist history aside, the statement went on to say that the two women "had a very friendly private conversation" talking about the "historical changes their husbands brought about, the rigors of travel and their first meeting."
The "rigors of travel" may have touched on what to wear. Liz Smith reported in today's column that Mrs. Gorbachev took off her high-heeled pumps to show Mrs. Reagan Band-Aid-covered blisters on her feet from long hours of standing. She vowed to buy shoes with lower heels.
If Mrs. Reagan watched television reports of the Gorbachevs' Washington visit, she probably recognized one particular outfit in Raisa Gorbachev's dress-for-success travel wardrobe. The rust-colored dress and coat ensemble she wore to Camp David on Saturday was the same one she wore in 1988 at Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery in an encounter with Mrs. Reagan that turned into a test of one-upmanship for media attention.
The Raisa Gorbachev touring America this week showed somewhat subtler media skills. She still worked the ropes, pressed the flesh and kept her hosts waiting at times but she also asked questions, listened to the answers and looked for all the world like someone taking a crash course in democracy. At Wellesley, she was a gentle lecturer brushing aside "mutual estrangement and suspicion" that hampered U.S.-Soviet relations of the past.
"The Soviet people know the value of a peaceful life. We wish to have good relations with the Americans and other people," she told the cheering graduates.
And though her remarks were starkly lacking polemics as well as humor, she struck a familiar chord with her young audience.
"Always, even in the most cruel and troubled times, women have had the mission of peacemaking, humanism and mercy," she said. "And if people in the world today are more confident of a peaceful future, we have to give a great deal of credit to women who are active advocates of friendship, cooperation and mutual understanding among nations.
The next day at Camp David, she and Mrs. Bush changed into slacks, pitched a few horseshoes, bowled a little and rode around in a golf cart while their husbands continued their summitry.
They also "talked and talked and talked," as one aide put it. They compared customs, traditions and their public and private lives, including how their families live. The Gorbachevs and their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter live together at the Kremlin. When Mrs. Gorbachev learned that the Bush children do not live in homes paid for by the Bushes but are buying their own with mortgages, she wanted to know how a mortgage works.
Throughout her stay, she was anxious that Americans think well of her. She took notes sometimes and occasionally sought the advice of others.
"She wanted to know how something was done or whether she was doing the right thing," said one American in her entourage. "There was the distinct impression that she wanted things to go well, that she wanted to adapt."
Barbara Bush offered candid answers, lots of encouragement and endless hospitality.
"Would you like to say something?" she gently nudged as she and her Soviet companion paused to talk to reporters in Boston.
Raisa Gorbachev didn't let her down.