Somewhere in his recent interview with reporters for the British Broadcasting Corp., Ronald Reagan must have thought of me. Knowing my penchant for criticizing him and considerate of my need for column material, the gipper decided to flub one for Cohen: "I'm no linguist, but I have been told that in the Russian language there isn't even a word for freedom." Nice try, Mr. President, but it didn't work. Aside from your not knowing Russian -- svoboda means freedom -- there was nothing in that interview to criticize.
In fact, if you had not known the BBC was interviewing Ronald Reagan, you would be hard-pressed to identify him as the object of all this journalistic attention. You would know he was a high government official, but his political party -- not to mention his ideology -- would hardly be obvious. From the language, it could even have been Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. In his waning presidency, Reagan seems to be slouching toward Hyannisport.
Here is the man who once called the Soviet Union "the evil empire" now saying we -- and they -- must work together to "eliminate some of the paranoia." He said we have to "reduce the hostility, the suspicion that keeps our two countries . . . at odds with each other." After conceding that, when it comes to political systems, East is East and West is West and probably never will the twain meet, the president added, "We can have a peaceful competition. We have to live in the world together." There isn't "any reason why we can't coexist in the world." With that, neoconservatives and conservatives alike must have felt like plunging from a very high window.
A cynical person would say that the president had lapsed into Summittalk, the strange language of conciliation that babbles from the lips of world leaders when Geneva's on their mind. Maybe. But it is the sort of language that Reagan could not have conceivably spoken three or more years ago. It not only does not describe the Soviet Union as the Darth Vader of nations, but makes the president sound suspiciously like the liberals and moderates he once disdained. After all, the right says only liberals hold out the promise of peaceful coexistence, a mutuality of interest with the Soviet Union -- mushy-minded reasoning that undermines U.S. resolve.
Contrast the current Reagan with the current issue of Commentary magazine, where 29 mostly neoconservative intellectuals were asked whether the United States had met its major challenges in the last four decades. (Hint: The correct neoconservative line is "no.") "What we have not done . . . is face up to the fact that Communism is an either/or proposition," writes the influential Midge Decter, a Heritage Foundation trustee. She goes on to say that, "In the long run either Communism in some variant or Western-style democracy in some variant must prevail. It is a case of 'them or us.'
Some day someone will notice that the conservatives and neoconservatives were able to accomplish in the first five years of the Reagan administration what it took liberalism 50 years to achieve -- a bankruptcy of ideas. But the Commentary article is evidence that the neoconservatives have gone beyond that. They are now the archetypal American "communists" of our time -- intellectually rigid and frozen in the debates of the Cold War era about the nature of communism and the U.S.S.R. The president, by contrast, is moving past that and into the real world. He has gone from the lecture to the lab and found the old theories totally beside the point. Call Russia evil if you wish, but by all means call it to the bargaining table.
So now Ronald Reagan has begun to talk just as all presidents have talked when it comes to the Soviets. Reality informs his vocabulary. This does not mean that he (or the liberals he once claimed to abhor) has forgotten the Gulag, Scharansky and Sakharov, Afghanistan and all the rest or, even, that these subjects will not be raised, as they should be, time and again. It means only that once again, reality has mugged ideology.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union have words for freedom. But if, to paraphrase Janis Joplin, svoboda is just another name for nothing more to lose, then neither country has a word for that.