It was inevitable, given the decrepit picture of aging Soviet leaders of late, that much of the initial commentary about Mikhail Gorbachev would involve his "vigorous" and "youthful" and "charismatic" personality.
And, oh, yes, that of his wife, too.
She's "the Bo Derek of the steppes," we're told, a characterization that presumably is meant to make the new Soviet leader's wife seem glamorous and attractive. In fact, to compare the stylish and sophisticated Raisa Gorbachev to the vacuous Derek is one of those unintentional little jokes that says more about the stupidity of the teller than it does about the object of the reference. A Ninotchka she might be, or even another Anna, but save her from the invidious link with an actress (?) whose talent lies in taking off her clothes before the cameras.
In any event, this matter of personality is not without importance -- especially when it comes to Soviet leaders, to say nothing of other notable examples of the power of personality exhibited in recent years by a new pope, John Paul II, and a new president, Ronald Reagan.
Not since the coming to power of Nikita Khrushchev more than a generation ago has the question of personality loomed so large in Soviet relations. There is, in that fact alone, a heavy historical irony.
It was Khrushchev who finally won the power struggle after Joseph Stalin's long and bloody reign ended with his death 32 years ago. It was Khrushchev who assumed leadership with his famous denunciation of the "cult of personality" that had surrounded Stalin's iron control of Soviet destinies for nearly three decades. It was Khrushchev who led the move toward "de-Stalinization." And, in the end, after finding himself regarded as the personification of Soviet life, it was Khrushchev who was deposed 20 years ago and consigned to spend the remainder of his life in anonymity.
Since then, the Soviet Union has been led by the stolid and colorless Leonid Brezhnev and, in quick succession, the infirm Yuri Andropov and dying Konstantin Chernenko, none of whom, to put it mildly, qualified as "charismatic."
Now that Gorbachev has moved swiftly and confidently onto the world stage, bringing with him freshness and vigor and, clearly, a taste for the spotlight, the example of Khrushchev's rise and fall seems worth recalling.
So much has happened since to change the context of Soviet-American relations that it's hard to appreciate how great an impact Khrushchev initially had on U.S. attitudes and the world's imagination.
His first visit to the United States remains an indelible memory. It was the fall of 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower was completing his second term, the Cold War and the Bomb were firmly established as the overriding facts of international life in the nuclear age, Richard Nixon and John Kennedy were making front-page headlines as the leading contenders for the presidency in next year's election ushering in a new decade -- and here came Khrushchev.
Short, squat, balding, beaming, with the strong hands of a peasant and the energy of a field hand (which he had been), he charged about the United States and gloried in the news he made. The news media loved him. (Not, ideological conspirators, because of "media left-wing liberal bias," but because he was a helluva good story -- and represented a dramatic departure from previous Soviet leaders.)
Khrushchev was blunt, forceful, boastful, humorous, outspoken, impish, jovial. Everywhere he went, he warmed to his role as communism's number one salesman. He toured a farm, picked up a plump white turkey and drew a political lesson for the times. "You can't tell a communist bird from it's capitalistic cousin without a passport," he ad-libbed for the throng of pursuing reporters.
The farther he traveled, the better he got at commanding headlines and getting across his message. He laced his extemporaneous remarks with homey fables, quoted Chekhov and the ancient Greeks, responded to critics with pungent language ("The question of Hungary has stuck in some people's throats as a dead rat; they feel it unpleasant, yet cannot spit it out"), hailed the peacemakers, warned that the Earth will be covered with "ashes and graves" unless scientists of all nations cooperate for the betterment of mankind, paid reverent tribute to Lincoln and, all in all, seemed to exult in drawing attention to himself.
He came to Washington, met with Ike at the White House, entertained the old World War II general at a Soviet Embassy dinner and went off with the president for three days of intensive talks at Camp David.
Hopes rose for an end to the Cold War stalemate and its ever-present terrors. Khrushchev went out of his way to heighten those positive emotions.
"The ice of the Cold War already is not only showing signs of a crack," he told Ike, as he raised his glass to toast the president, "but has started to crumble."
In fact, the worst of the Cold War tests lay ahead with the nightmarish confrontation during the Cuban missile crisis when Khrushchev and Kennedy faced each other and the world came close to nuclear war.
The lesson, when applied to the present era as another strong Soviet leader assumes power, is simple: Personality counts -- but don't count on it alone to resolve longstanding and immensely complicated differences between the United States and the Soviet Union.