MUCH IS BEING SAID of how the media covered the summit. We have our own insightful opinion, but since it is no doubt hopelessly compromised by our own collective participation in the event, we shall forgo the horrific details. Anyway, there is a whole other set of media heroes we prefer to salute in the post-summit meditations, a large group that rose to heights of sense and balance that many had thought beyond it. We refer to the readers, the viewers, the public in this country and in Western Europe too.
Recall the view that flourished just a few weeks ago during preparations for the summit. The public was being widely portrayed as a bowl of mush waiting to be ladled out and served up in giant-sized Russian spoonfuls by Mikhail Gorbachev. The idea of an alert, autonomous public, one capable of consuming information and producing a judgment -- the idea that is the pride of a democracy -- was in question. In its place came the countering idea of a public pitifully vulnerable to the crude but shrewd manipulations of which only the Russians -- not ostensibly media-savvy Western politicians -- were capable. Whole theories of the inherent punkiness of Western democracy, and of the cravenness but potency of the Western press, were trotted out to explain the expected debacle.
In the event, however, Mikhail Gorbachev did not swoop in and conquer all. Ronald Reagan did not seem to be constantly struggling to push the stone of Western opinion uphill. In their conversations, it seems, Mr. Reagan more than held his own. In media appearances, Mr. Gorbachev showed himself as intelligent and agile but hardly as a master of the form. Human-rights questions left him and his aides flustered. A one-hour opening lecture was an odd way to engage Western attention. His reception of some of Mr. Reagan's American critics was no gain. The president has his off moments, but his on moments -- his address to Congress Thursday night was surely among them -- indicate the distance Mr. Gorbachev still has to go.
The results of summit public diplomacy leave us wondering whether the excessive anxiety expressed over the flabbiness of the American/Western public was ever much more than the conservative jitters. In Western societies these days, is there a loss of nerve -- not a loss by the liberals, as the conservatives keep saying, but by the conservatives themselves? Were some real but hidden doubts about whether Mr. Reagan could deal with Mr. Gorbachev displaced by expressed doubts about whether the public would stand firm? Look who's falling into the elitist trap now.