Any notion that Soviet leader Yuri V. Andropov was a shrewd, world-class propagandist went down with the South Korean plane over Sakhalin Island.
Many questions have yet to be answered about Korean Air Lines Flight 007. For instance, why was it off course by as much as 300 miles for 2 1/2 hours, wandering near a Soviet missile test site? Why did the pilot fail to answer radio queries and, now it seems, cannon shots fired by a Soviet fighter plane that was in pursuit? More transcripts of airborne conversations could bolster Soviet claims of provocation.
Belatedly revealed information, such as the presence in the area of a U.S. spy plane, add to the ambiguities, but do not diminish the horror of the gunning down of a passenger plane. It took the Soviets a week to admit that they did it. They have yet to understand the universal revulsion at the downing.
If Andropov is in charge--and it may be that he can't conquer his military, he has shown a touch with public opinion that the lowliest muzhik need not envy.
The Soviets have piled insult on injury. They have said they would do it again, that Soviet borders are "sacred" and that it was a capitalist plot.
The Kremlin has given the anti-communists the present of a jubilee of vindication.
At a Memorial Service for representative Larry McDonald (D-Ga.), head of the John Birch Society and the most conspicuous casualty of the 269 aboard the plane, Constitution Hall exploded with applause as speaker after speaker rose to gloat, "I told you so."
They can no longer be called "kooks and extremists," as McDonald once was. Now the world knows that the Soviets are "subhuman" and "barbaric."
More moderate criticism was voiced by Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) on the television talk show "Face the Nation." The Soviets, he said "took a situation that was bad and made it insufferable in the eyes of the world."
If Andropov were the wizard of legend, he would certainly have apologized for the harassment Soviet reconnaissance pilots accorded the grieving relatives of the victims. A chartered boat took them to the site where the plane is believed to have gone down. Soviet planes buzzed them, proving that respect for death ranks with respect for life with the Politburo.
If Andropov were the wizard of legend, he would have wrestled Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko to the ground rather than let him go to the human rights meeting in Madrid and say that the Soviets would kill anyone else who violates their "sacred" borders.
The news conference of Marshal Ogarkov was another fiasco. It may have been a terrific concession for a Soviet defense minister to explain anything in public, but the marshal was no healer. He told the whopper that the plane lights referred to in a Soviet transcript--an important point, as the Soviets insist that Flight 007 did not have its lights on--were those of a second Soviet fighter, even though the pilot is talking about "the target."
In other words, the Soviets treated the rest of the world the way they treat their citizens. They are justifying brutality in the most cursory way, and abuse those who take exception to it. It is an object lesson upon which that Human Events and other right-wing journals could not have improved.
What Andropov and company have done for U.S. hawks, the MX missile, the defense budget and President Reagan is beyond calculation now.
Andropov seems, in fact, to be acting as chairman of Reagan's reelection campaign. The Soviets' blunders have given the president, who six months ago was berated for picturing them as monsters, a statesman's aura. His mild sanctions have stirred the rage of the right and made him a martyr for moderation with the rest of the electorate.
Is he a warmonger, dragging his feet on disarmament talks? On Labor Day, he said he would not, despite his indignation, suspend the talks in Geneva. Arms control is too important to be cast aside in the passions of the moment, he said. Liberal journals praise him.
He did not attend the Constitution Hall meeting, although his core constituency was there, and he agrees with every blistering word they said about the Soviets. He absents himself from excess.
He does not need, right now, to justify his hard line with the "evil empire" at Geneva.
The fasts for peace continue; the hunger for arms control is still there. But it is harder to argue today that the Soviets are, despite their inhuman system of government, human beings who do not wish to face the millions of casualties that a nuclear exchange would entail.
Afghanistan is far away; Poland has always had trouble. Flight 007 strikes terror in all hearts. Maybe the Soviets have learned something from "the hullabaloo" over its fate. Certainly, they have convinced the rest of us that they have everything to learn.