Ronald Reagan is preparing for his summit with Mikhail Gorbachev the way a heavyweight boxer trains for the fight for the world championship.
It is the custom for rival training camps to issue ferocious statements and threats -- "I'll kill the bum" -- to psych out the other side, and Reagan has been rather diligent in that regard.
He has taken a series of jabs at his rival. The announcement of tests of antisatellite weapons, the chilling speech from his national security affairs adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, and the charges that the Soviets have been using a potentially toxic spy dust against Americans in Moscow have created an impression that Reagan wishes Gorbachev to understand that the Western world's most gifted political communicator is going to go the full 10 rounds in Geneva.
At the same time, seemingly, Reagan is telling his countrymen that they are not to expect too much from the match. It is almost as if he were trying to persuade them that it would be unpatriotic to look for any kind of an arms agreement from the long-delayed encounter. The vague talk about more general discussion that emanated from Santa Barbara suggests that the president intends to lecture to Gorbachev rather than negotiate with him.
All of Reagan's fear and loathing of the Soviets, which was somewhat suppressed during the campaign, have resurfaced. Reagan apparently wants to reassure the right wing that his going to Geneva does not mean that he will be taken in by the smile that Gorbachev has learned can make such a difference in world affairs.
All Americans, he seems to hint, should be glad if he does not reach an arms accord with a nation that lies and cheats -- and makes any arms treaty nothing more than a scrap of paper.
Even so, sometimes during his workouts Reagan appears to be sparring with himself. He knows that for the sake of history, not to mention an incomparable photo opportunity, he must sit down with Gorbachev. On the other hand, he recoils from treating the epitome of the "Evil Empire" as an equal. Still, his aides must slip him reading materials that help explain the Soviet Union's paranoia. Last month he suggested that he understands somehow the source of the Soviet Union's fear and suspicion, and expressed the hope that he could calm Gorbachev's anxiety that we intend to take "hostile action" against them.
He immediately added that the Soviets are the hostile ones -- "their expansionism worldwide, their invasion of Afghanistan and so forth."
Reagan will probably convey to Gorbachev his visceral conviction that the Soviets should consider themselves lucky to live on the same planet as America, the country that is "a shining city on a hill," a place of virtue, vigor and strength. The only fear that Reagan has is that the country is too decent for its own good and therefore a setup for the malevolent, ruthless, godless Kremlin commissars.
He gives unmistakable evidence of thinking that he does not have to give an inch in Geneva. He has the Soviets right where he wants them. We have "Star Wars." They do not.
Star Wars, he often boasts, offers "a way out of the nuclear dilemma"; it offers him a way out of his most excruciating personal dilemma, too. It offers him a way out of negotiating a deal with the Soviets. As long as he keeps them off balance with the threat of an enormously complicated and expensive defensive system, he frees himself from any need to make progress on terrestial weapons and settles back to watch them bankrupt themselves in pursuit of their version.
The unmistakable echo of the 1984 Summer Olympics' slogan, "We're No. 1," sounded in his Los Angeles speech. He observed that some fainthearts had called his Star Wars scheme "unfeasible and a waste of money," then he crowed, "Well, if that's true, why are the Soviets so upset about it?"
The Olympics were an ideal event from Reagan's point of view. The United States demonstrated its clear superiority, and there were no Soviets on hand to clutter the landscape.
Unfortunately, however, the Soviets are inevitable to any discussion of arms control.
Does Reagan have a strategy for the summit? We may be seeing it now. The training-camp growls and snarls, punctuated occasionally with statements indicating historical understanding to mollify European public opinion. Possibly at Geneva, he will berate Gorbachev on the inside about Soviet sins and then go out and dazzle the cameras with a show of affability that will leave Gorbachev far behind.
Then he will come home and say, "We tried."