Maybe it was enough the first time, in order to ensure a second time, for Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to keep their televised exchange of New Year's greetings prim and forgettable. But the president's speech writers, anyway, can do a bit better in the next round. It's a major and rare event to make a direct, uncensored, unjammed approach to the Soviet public. The Reagan administration did well to work hard to arrange it. The opportunity should be used to the hilt.
Yes, it takes a calculated suspension of both common sense and conservative habit to imagine that there is an independent Soviet public and that Kremlin mind-molders will allow Western politicians to massage it. Some think Moscow opened up this time strictly for post-summit atmospherics. Others wonderwhether it was in response to an American dare. I suspect the new Soviet leadership is more modern and feels it can compete successfully in the openness game.
In any event, it is very American to want to have a crack at Soviet opinion. U.S. Information Agency Director Charles Wick had it just right when he told me that, on the Soviet side, the exchange of tapes lets Soviet viewers "assess Reagan themselves." We would be untrue to ourselves if we did not believe that providing the occasion for individual judgment is its own reward.
The master of reaching out to the Russians was, of course, Richard Nixon. He enjoyed the only previous access an American president has had to Soviet TV, in the Moscow summit of 1972. He used it for an intense and -- in Russia as well as here -- unforgettable evocation of "Tanya," a 12-year-old girl who had died in the German siege of Leningrad in World War II and left a touching diary.
Gorbachev showed the gold still available to be mined in that vein when, by way of pointing to the passion of the "Soviet people" for peace, he made the ritual Kremlin bow to the country's tremendous wartime losses. Americans may find it hokey and manipulative, but Russians lap it up. It made me think that Reagan, on New Year's day, would have done well to try to summon some further emotional resonance on this wavelength. A bit too much of his brief interlude on Soviet air may have been spent offering his listeners little capsulizations of his negotiating positions at Geneva.
On another day, for instance, he might tell the Soviet people of the dangers of nuclear war. The impression is about, partly from the award of a Nobel Peace Prize to a doctors' group with a Soviet cochairman, that the Soviets are already well informed. But a dissident whom the authorities tortured and expelled recently demolished that impression. He noted in The New York Times that the cochairman's famous Moscow TV program on war had been broadcast only once, without notice and in the middle of a working day, and suggested that hardly any of the few Russian-language copies of the doctor's book had actually been distributed at home.
Another large theme available for working by Reagan and his writers: "parity." There is much suspicious talk in each country of whether the other is bent on gaining some sort of superiority or advantage. The fact remains that Russians are a long time getting over a huge inferiority complex and that a passion to secure acknowledgement of their claim to match the United States as a great power is deeply imbedded in the national psyche. Again, this may sound a bit artificial to Americans, but there is good reason to think that a Soviet audience might appreciate strummings on this theme.
But you get the idea. Brief and occasional exposure on Soviet television is probably the best an American president can hope for. Reagan has previously spoken of using such a forum to advance a general ideological "competition of ideas and values." It might be better used, for an audience that is unquestionably far more cynical, uninformed and apathetic than comparable groups in the West, to pluck emotional chords. Gorbachev's own New Year's message was indicative: not a stunning performance but simple and homey, emphasizing attitudes (the need for trust) more than positions.
The broad point is tellingly made, in another context, by Harold Saunders in his very wise article on the Middle East in the new issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.
His theme is doing the work diplomats often stint: building the necessary political backing for a peace initiative. As one detail, he suggests that at the right time, Jordan's King Hussein might address Israelis on Jordan TV, which is widely watched in Israel. Saunders grasps that television can do more than just facilitate the routine political point-scoring in which Reagan and Gorbachev engaged this week. It can also permit a dramatic, confidence-building, mold-shattering breakthrough.
You do not wish to hold your breath waiting for a Soviet-American breakthrough? Then note Saunders' reminder on the content of messages directed at broad publics. The real obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace, he says, lies beyond technicalities. "The real breakthrough might come from mutual recognition of each other's suffering and desire for permanence." That is to say, to move a whole public, it's not enough to contrive clever diplomatic formulas; basic feelings -- fears, aspirations -- must be touched. Happy New Year.