Mikhail Gorbachev followed the Parade of Roses into my living room. The lead-in, as they say in the entertainment world, was pure Americana, though not without its Cold War symbolism.
The Kiwanis Club float, for example, featured two ostriches ducking their heads in the Styrofoam sand. The ostriches were followed by a Noah's Ark float, and then a Salvation Army entry and finally one featuring two stuntmen balancing precariously, courting disaster, on motorized planes.
Still it was a bit jarring when the programming broke from playtime in Pasadena for a few words sponsored by Moscow. And then a few more words from the White House to the U.S.S.R.
The post-parade exchange of greetings was one of equal time, though hardly one of equal weight for the two superpowers. The teleprompter is Ronald Reagan's star medium. Mikhail Gorbachev may be a great Soviet communicator, in the sense that his wife, Raisa, is a great Soviet fashion plate.
This was no show-stopper for the American people. We had already heard the man from Moscow and his message. The exchange came as an interlude, just an interlude, in New Year's Day. A word from the leaders and then back to programming as usual. "All My Children" was in full swing, and the main character was suffering from amnesia.
But in the Soviet Union, I suspect, the image will have a longer life as measured in conversation and public interest. It was far more novel and striking for Soviets sitting before their 100 million TV sets -- or however many were in working order on Jan. 1 -- to see an unedited Ronald Reagan for the first time in prime time. Soviet citizens deal with their government as a mystery and its motives as a secret. They are forever analyzing tea leaves, even electronic ones: What does it mean that the government allowed Reagan access? They are also eager, in a way that we are not, for every firsthand report.
The same Muscovites who stand in line for a rare consumer commodity also treasure every piece of unadulterated information that comes their way. It was in Moscow that I celebrated with two authors when their book was issued in its first edition of 75,000 copies. Their study of gypsy folklore was a sell-out.
If the Soviets are curious about gypsies, they are far more curious about Americans. And far more curious than Americans are about Soviets.
Like most visitors to the U.S.S.R., I had my family snapshots passed around a dozen rooms, studied for the silverware, the wallpaper, the quality of the shirts as well as the smiles. In Leningrad, a woman pored over a picture of my mother, refusing to believe they were the same age, and then begged to keep it. I am sure that Soviet viewers this week took stock of Reagan's desk and tie as well as his words.
The curiosity about America is just as great in the schools. Soviet children may have only a limited idea about what goes on in California -- "that's where they build missiles" -- but they know where it is on a map, and want to know more. In contrast, only an unusual American child can find the Soviet Republic of Georgia. As a native of Odessa told me, "You think it is all Siberia."
Few Soviet citizens are allowed to see for themselves, either by reading or traveling in the West. The government filters and censors. But in the United States, it is private citizens who self-censor Russian language, literature, politics. Offered a smorgasbord of information, we choose from the limited menu.
Maybe there is an inverse relationship between information and curiosity. Forbidden fruit? Maybe the notion that our shelves are full of facts dulls our appetite. Our right to know may feed the illusion that we already know. Or know enough.
But it is odd. In America, we have to glean what is important from a glut of information; in the Soviet Union, they have to collect it piece by piece from a fairly barren landscape. In America, news is trivialized into entertainment. We assume that the viewer, the citizen, has to be enticed, even entranced into learning. In the Soviet Union, the government anxiously believes that an eager audience exists and then carefully sculpts the news to a narrow party line.
How strange that with all their limits and all our freedoms, we both know the same amount about each other. The same small amount.