In the end, it was the news media that got the superpowers off the hook. Like stubborn bull moose, neither Washington nor Moscow would let go in their head-to-head contact. So, it was agreed: usher in the fourth estate as third party and good office.
Even that wasn't smoothly arranged. The Soviets insisted on choosing those who would attend a press conference at the embassy. At the State Department, other reporters drew straws for approval to cover a second stage in a restricted area at Dulles International Airport. Altogether, six American news organizations participated.
These were the makeshift settings created to finesse the week-long diplomatic paralysis induced by the mischievous conduct of 16-year-old Andrei Berezhkov, son of a well-known Soviet diplomat. The boy was provided the opportunity to declare he wanted to go home and to deny that he had written to President Reagan and The New York Times saying precisely the opposite: "I hate my country . . . I want to stay here."
The White House, which has doubtless compared its letter with other samples of the boy's handwriting, is convinced of its authenticity.
The governments were dug in on principles. To the Russians, the boy's actions, which included disappearing for 10 hours with his parents' car, were a family affair. To the Americans, they amounted to a request for political asylum and could not be dismissed. The State Department wanted to interview the boy alone. As it turned out, American reporters substituted for the government.
Once there was agreement that the press would have access to the boy and not only to his parents or other Soviet officials, the scenario moved rapidly. Two assistant secretaries of state would be on hand at Dulles.
Initially, the Soviets sought Post reporter Don Oberdorfer and Cable News correspondent Daniel Schorr to pool for newspapers and networks respectively. Neither was available. In their places, Roger Mudd of NBC and John Wallach of Hearst Newspapers were invited. Les Gelb represented The New York Times.
All were disgruntled when only Andrei's father and the embassy charg,e d' affaires appeared. One of the reporters, after listening to statements and addressing a few questions to the father, charged they were invited "under false pretense." Finally, the boy was brought in. Responding to questions, he asserted that he did not write the letters and that he wanted to leave the United States. It was all over in 15 minutes.
The State Department pool, drawn from among 20 reporters, included AP, UPI and The Post. UPI became a substitute after CBS withdrew on being informed that cameras would not be permitted in the Customs area at Dulles where the reporters would converge. Ironically, while State would not agree to a television pool at the airport, the Soviets permitted NBC to videotape the embassy press conference.
AP reporter George Gedda, who, like everyone else connected with coverage of this story, is convinced the published letter was not forged, said the boy "didn't seem under duress. He could have bolted and run" at Dulles. A State Department official said separately, "He could have given us a sign. But he didn't."
Perhaps unavoidably, this contretemps was elevated beyond its diplomatic merit. Questions remain that may provide lessons for both sides. Had Congress, even the White House, been in town, we might not have seen a conclusion yet. As it was, people who ought to know better declaimed the standoff as a mighty test of wills certain to have a profound effect on continuing Soviet-American relations. But it had to end.
What happened first and last was a news media event. There isn't a reporter involved with the finale that assured safe passage for the boy and his parents who doesn't realize he was lied to by father, son and Soviet official. If the press wants to say "you had this one on us," the governments should know what that means.