HOLD ON, Mikhail! You've been watching us too closely. You're learning too fast how to sidestep the tough questions without sounding rude, how to charm your audience without telling them what they really want to know. You've probably even been screening those great old videotapes of President Reagan in action -- the ones they gave you to take home before the summit.
Of course the things that Soviet leaders would rather not discuss are a lot harder to gloss over than those an American president would just as soon avoid. Budget deficits and arms-for-hostages trades are bad things, but they're not in a league with the Berlin wall or forced labor camps. Even with glasnost, you don't have to put up with reporters like me dogging your every step. Still, you're learning fast.
In your interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw last week, for example, you put to excellent use all the modern techniques with which our president has so endeared himself to the American audience. Your people must have managed to get a copy of the White House manual on television speeches because you've clearly mastered some of the hardest chapters, such as, "How to take a flying leap over history," or "How to make people forget who's been in charge" and "When in trouble, skip the details." It wasn't hard for seasoned White House watchers to spot these tricks in your maiden appearance on U.S. television. But don't worry, you can go on using them for a long time. For all our efforts to police his rhetoric, Reagan still never lets the truth get in the way of a good line. I suppose he'll retire to Santa Barbara in 15 months believing that Congress appropriates every nickel and presidents don't spend a dime.
Just like Reagan, you made it clear how hard it is for the man at the top to know about all the troublesome things that a big government may get into. For example, take Brokaw's suggestion that the Soviets are also developing a strategic defense program. I had just assumed you knew what was going on out there at the Shary Shagan Missile Test Center. But your response made me realize that nitty-gritty details never make it to the highest levels of the Kremlin.
"Well, it's really hard to say what the Soviet Union is not doing," you answered. "Practically, the Soviet Union is doing all that the United States is doing, and I guess we are engaged in research, basic research . . . ." You guess? It's really hard to say? Nice touch.
And then there was the human rights discussion in which you said the United States, in pushing for increased emigration from the Soviet Union, was selfishly trying to organize a "brain drain" from your country. How does this square with the fact that Soviet leaders were so willing to allow a "brain drain" at the height of detente in the last decade, when, for example, Soviet Jews were permitted to leave by the tens of thousands?
Where better to learn this lesson than from Reagan: "What we did before has nothing to do with what we're doing now."
There's another favorite Reagan line you might want to borrow, this one from the Iran-contra affair: "Mistakes were made." It has a nice ring to it. If anyone asks you who made the mistakes, borrow another favorite White House response: "They know who they are."
It was hard to sit still when Brokaw asked you about the Berlin Wall. As you know, there was speculation earlier this year that you would call Reagan's bluff and, in a stunning gesture, take down the Wall, as he had demanded at Brandenburg Gate last summer.Instead you told Brokaw the Wall was erected to protect East Germany from the "great harm" done to it through West Berlin.
The history books tell a different story. Between 1949, when the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was founded, and 1961, when the Wall was built, almost 3 million people, or one in every six, are estimated to have abandoned East Germany for the West.
In other words, the Wall was built to keep people in, not to protect them from outsiders.
But if you do decide to change your mind and order the Wall destroyed, don't worry about consistency. Reagan has perfectedthe quick retreat, and you're welcome to steal any of his material. Remember how the president went on television to tell us that keeping the Marines in Lebanon was vital to American national security? When he pulled them out a few months later, he simply issued a written statement saying they were being "redeployed" a few miles to the West. This put them aboard ships in the Mediterranean.
Perhaps this last term of art will also come in handy if you decide to "redeploy" Soviet forces out of Afghanistan.
Whatever your next move in Afghanistan, remember that even the best rhetorical devices finally get stale. Don't you get tired of hearing that SDI is not a bargaining chip? Well, the same goes for your use of the old explanation -- first proffered by Brezhnev to Jimmy Carter -- that the invasion of Afghanistan was simply a response to an "appeal" for Soviet help.
True, there was an appeal from the government of President Hazizullah Amin. But this "appeal" was followed by a Soviet invasion in which Amin was killed. The announcement of the new government under Soviet-backed leader Babrak Karmal came from a transmitter inside the Soviet Union purporting to be Radio Afghanistan.
As they say, Mikhail, "mistakes were made." Reagan offered you a polite way out last week when he said "there were other leaders under which this happened." Or, as the president might say in private, it was not on your watch.
While you're at the White House, stop in at the family theatre. No doubt the president would be delighted to show you some of those slick commercials from 1984, "It's morning again in America."
You might want to adapt them for selling perestroika.
David Hoffman covers the White House for the Washington Post. Staff Researcher Michelle Hall contributed to this article.