Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, with his burst of fresh, forceful language and vigor in this week's Time Magazine interview, presented the unusual image of a Kremlin leader with a keen wit and a detailed grasp of American political metaphor.
At a time when western analysts here assumed that the new Soviet leader was preoccupied with consolidating power and cleaning house on domestic issues, he displayed a knowledge of topical political issues and personalities in the United States reflecting far more than a quick, surface study. "We get reports about the political atmosphere in Washington," Gorbachev said, "and that information disconcerts and disappoints us."
As if to illustrate, he referred to specific policy speeches made by President Reagan in 1983 and '84, gave a concise, detailed analysis of a speech by national security affairs adviser Robert C. McFarlane, and noted a report by Texas ex-senator John Tower and Undersecretary of State Michael H. Armacost. He even mentioned a Washington Post columnist, Mary McGrory, by name, although "in Russian so heavy it was only recognizable after the translator said it," according to a source present during the interview.
While Gorbachev may have had some difficulty with McGrory's name, the point that he sought to make, underscored throughout the interview, accentuated the positive.
In response to a question about his view of President Reagan, Gorbachev turned immediately to the forthcoming summit and said, "We agreed to the Geneva meeting because we thought we could do a lot by trying to meet each other halfway. That, again, is why we have reacted so sharply to some of the statements being made these days in connection with the summit.
"So we see that there are some who want to generate a situation to persuade the U.S. and the American public that, as Mary McGrory put it, even if the only thing to come out of the summit was an agreement to exchange ballet troupes, then even so, people would be gleeful and happy."
Gorbachev went on to make clear that Moscow intended to discuss far more than the state of modern dance when he and Reagan get together in Geneva.
In his wide-ranging conversational reach into such contemporary American political issues as the budget deficit and the technological brain drain, Gorbachev apparently was assisted extensively by a platoon of aides. They represented a stockpile of expertise in American politics dating back to the days of Lyndon Johnson and Nikita Khrushchev.
Georgi Arbatov, 62, head of the Soviets' U.S.A.-Canada Institute since 1967, flanked Gorbachev. Leonid Zamyatin, 63, chief of the Information Department was also at the table, along with his assistant Vitali Kobysh.
Andrei Alexandrov-Agentov, a Kremlin foreign policy adviser dating back to the Brezhnev days, sat in, too. Viktor Sukhodrev, a Kremlin translator since the time of Khrushchev, translated consecutively for Gorbachev, who showed no hint of knowledge of English, according to a source present.
Probably more important than the storehouse of knowledge surrounding him was Gorbachev's made-for-television way of projecting it, and himself.
He was witty, telling one Time editor, when handing him a green envelope holding answers to six written questions: "Not even a hint of export of revolution."
He was anecdotal when comparing a former Soviet finance minister's knee-jerk rejections to those of the American administration. The minister, said Gorbachev, was an old man who dozed off during meetings of the Council of Ministers. "Whenever you would wake him, he would always say, 'No money; there's no money.' "
And he showed all the strengths of a good salesman. He dominated the first half of the interview with a monologue, a source here said. He made personal contact with each of the members of the five-man Time entourage, often in jocular terms. But he wasted no time with small talk and, in a typical Russian style, cut to the quick on a range of issues on his laden political plate, including "Star Wars," invigorating the economy, and arms control.
Despite Gorbachev's success in one two-hour interview in updating the western public's image of a Soviet leader, whether he can become known as a "great communicator," as President Reagan is, is open to question.
First, there are conditions under which salesmanship does not translate well, from Russian or any other language. Many observers here wonder whether the same man who gleams in translation in the pages of Time will transmit as well on live western television. More important, Gorbachev has sold himself well but has not yet delivered on policies.
Gorbachev said the Soviet Union stands ready to make concrete proposals at the summit, but as yet it has not given a hint of what those proposals might be. Some of the policies Gorbachev has preached, such as proposed reforms for the Soviet economy, have not shown originality. Yet originality may be required.
But the West has put a premium on the style and projection of its leaders, and Gorbachev is meeting it, eyeball to eyeball.
Western commentators in Moscow sum up his interview performance with one word: "charismatic." It was, one western diplomat said, "vintage charisma."
More witty than Leonid Brezhnev, human along the lines of Khrushchev, Gorbachev takes on the lines of a Soviet original. "I behaved this way when I was working in the Stavropol territory," he said, referring to the southern region where he grew up and launched into politics. "It was not I who invented this style. V.I. Lenin invented this style, . . . so the priority in this belongs to V.I Lenin.