When the children of Peace Bird came to town last week, the Soviets not only accepted their symbolic flowers but, smooth as silk, invited them in for Coke and chocolates.
The reception at the White House was a little different. The international delegation got to speak only with a security guard. Their flowers -- American Beauty roses, at that -- wound up in a White House trash can.
All of which proves . . . well, it proves nothing except that someone at the Soviet Embassy was alert to the PR possibilities, while a guard at the PR-conscious White House blew the deal.
It's not that big a deal, of course -- sort of like having a surly hatcheck girl take the edge off a gourmet banquet. The main feast -- the Reagan-Gorbachev summit and the signing of their arms-reduction agreement -- is no less memorable. But for the 45 members of Peace Bird, the subsequent White House apology will not kill the bitter aftertaste.
I feel almost as sorry for President Reagan as I do for the youngsters.
The interesting thing is that the administration had done a lot of right things until that Saturday gaffe. Last March, when members of Peace Bird sought to meet with U.S. and Soviet officials in West Germany to ask that their fears of nuclear war be taken seriously, the Soviet ambassador agreed only to receive the children's adult guide, Holger Guesselfeld. U.S. Ambassador Richard Burt received the children themselves and passed along their request to meet with Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev during the summit.
A few months later, they had a three-page letter from President Reagan, which, while stopping short of offering a personal meeting, played all the right PR chords.
Who are these children, who showed up here with their roses and thousands of letters from youngsters all over the world? According to Guesselfeld, Peace Bird is a tiny West Germany-based group of children from 31 countries who are worried about the future of the world and hope to have their fears taken seriously by world leaders.
Guesselfeld cited a survey showing that fully half of Europe's children think there will be a nuclear war in their lifetime. "It's difficult for them to think of such long-term concerns as careers and family when they think they are likely to die in a nuclear war," he said.
Aren't adults like Guesselfeld, a writer of children's books, in danger of exacerbating these paralyzing fears? Not at all, says Guesselfeld. "We really try to calm them, but they read the papers, they have the information, and they really are fearful. We know Reagan and Gorbachev won't actually read the letters. What the children are asking is that the two men set up an East-West Commission or some such thing to read the letters and issue a report on the war fears of children today.
"There's nothing political about what the children are doing. The children who are most afraid are not the children whose parents are in the peace movement but those who just hear about the chance of war through computer error or something like that and who can't speak about it to their parents because their parents don't like discussing the subject at dinner."
At least some adults are taking seriously the youngsters' fears. Burt, for instance, and the 30 German mayors who have written letters of support, and Lufthansa, which supplied 24 free tickets for the 43-member delegation to the summit.
And so is President Reagan, when his people let the message get through. His "Dear young friends" letter to Peace Bird said all the right things, ending with this:
"Our aims are simple, our agenda short. We seek peace and freedom, and when I meet with Mr. Gorbachev later this year, that is the agenda I will pursue. As I do so, the messages and encouragement I have received from young people like you will be close to my heart.
"It is to you that the legacy of our achievements in peace, freedom and prosperity will pass. But it is from you that so much of our inspiration to build that legacy comes."
It's a shame that the president's eloquent response was wiped out by an insensitive security guard.