My world, but didn't they sound put out about the whole thing. Downright grumpy. You could hear a collective "harumph" coming from the Reagan boys, as if they had been personally offended by the Gorbachev peace offensive.
No sooner had the new Soviet leader talked favorably about a summit and announced a unilateral freeze on deploying middle-range missiles in Europe than Larry Speakes narrowed his eyes and uttered dark suspicions about the meaning of the whole thing. By the morning after, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane had called the Soviet message a "guise, a snare, a delusion." Finally, Donald Regan accused the Soviets of trying "to divide the Western allies" and -- the nerve of them -- trying to "gain a propaganda coup."
Someone who only heard the Reaganite response would have assumed that the Soviets had just announced a new round in the arms race or eternal hostility toward the West. Actually, Gorbachev had said, "Confrontation is not an inborn defect of our relations. It is rather an anomaly." This wasn't exactly a cue to let the doves of peace fly, but neither was it anything to shoot down so quickly.
The administration honchos practically banged their shoes on the table. They tried to drown out any good vibrations. It was as if this were still a campaign year and the opponent had scored a few surprise points in the debates.
And maybe that's what's going on. Suddenly the president's men are faced with a serious contender for the title of world leader. If there is one thing that sets the White House thermostat on burn it's finding a Great Communicator in the Kremlin.
After all, our guy is supposed to be tops at this sort of thing, but their guy came outith a peace message on Easter Sunday. Our guy was on vacation and their guy was in the headlines. Never mind the missile gap, this was serious stuff: the PR gap. Man the damage controls.
Gorbachev's offer to freeze missiles was indeed a propaganda move, not a strategic sacrifice. It didn't really take the president's men to tell us that. The Soviet verison of the Oxford English Dictionary defines propaganda as "information" rather than, say, disinformation. But it seems a bit nervy of this administration to yell foul at propaganda. The biggest peace initiative of the Reagan Years was to rename the MX missile "The Peacekeeper."
What happened -- where the canker gnaws -- was that Gorbachev made a great opening move, bound to win points in the European public-opinion polls. He came out sounding flexible and asking the right questions: ". . . is it not time for those who shape the policy of states to stop, think and prevent the adoption of decisions that would push the world to a nuclear cattrophe?" It wasn't a brilliant line, but it would make a good 30-second bite for an international commercial set against fields of wheat and smiling young Russians waving red stars of peace.
By comparison, our government sounded suspicious, testy and negative. Gloom and doom. It sounded like the Democrats in the last campaign.
Granted the White House isn't used to second spot in the ratings. It certainly isn't used to playing follow the Soviet leader. But if the Reagan boys are unhappy now, imagine how a series of these headlines -- Soviets Propose . . . USA Dismisses -- will look. It reeks of a worldwide role reversal with American leaders hunkered down, rigid and pessimistic in the Kremlin on the Potomac.
Still, spring is in the air, and I do find some hope in this new phase of international relations. The president is no slouch in the image biz. Nor is he the sort of guy who likes to to accentuate the negative. I expect the old fighting instinct will rise again in Dutch Reagan. He'll want to get the upper hand on the upbeat again and we may yet be off and running in a PR race instead of an arms race.
If the Soviets pledge to freeze weapons they don't need, we can top them with a pledge to freeze weapons we don't need, and once we've bargained away everything redundant, we might even get down to serious stuff. An international PR race would at least be based on the notion that leaders know what the public wants: to survive.
The president is now contending for the title of Peacemaker against a real comer. Reagan's men should stop pouting and start planning a comeback.