After a leisurely journey marked by blunders undreamed of in the days of Michael Deaver, Ronald Reagan is snugly ensconced in the catbird seat at the Tokyo Summit.
This past week illustrates once again that his luck goes beyond the stupendous to the supernatural. Once again, events have worked for him like indentured servants.
His passage to Asia was one mishap after another. It began in Hawaii with the telephone call to Ferdinand Marcos, a painful exchange that Marcos filmed for the president's discomfiture.
The arrival of the presidential party in Bali was a shambles for the leader of the free world. Two Australian broadcast correspondents were hustled off the White House press plane by local security officers because an Australian newspaper was critical of the president's host, President Suharto of Indonesia. Simultaneously, New York Times correspondent Barbara Crossette was kicked out of the country apparently because her newspaper did not portray Suharto as George Washington.
So much for the "winds of freedom," the fatuous slogan dreamed up by Reagan as the theme of the trip.
The president had a sit-down with Suharto, carefully omitting mention of East Timor, the scene of one of the world's major human rights violations. They got along famously -- and in the process shredded the officially promulgated fancy that Reagan has as much animus against dictators of the right as against dictators of the left.
In contrast, he had a scratchy encounter with Philippine Vice President Salvador Laurel, a principal player in one of the century's most heartening dramas of democracy.
But did the president suffer any embarrassment or derision? No, as usual, he got away clean.
His arch-adversary, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, bailed him out. Reagan's gaffes were relegated to the middle or the back of the papers and the news shows while Gorbachev, during of the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, began a replay of his country's worst public relations setback, the downing of the Korean Air Lines plane in 1983.
In short order, as the radioactive clouds gathered over Europe, demonstrators who one week before had been in the streets shaking their fists at Reagan for bombing Libya were turning on the Soviets for covering up a nuclear accident without parallel in history.
Gorbachev apparently still does not understand their indignation. What Gorbachev failed to realize is that all people cannot be treated like Soviet citizens, that is, with no regard for their comfort or peace of mind.
All Gorbachev needed to do once the cat was out of the bag -- smart Swedes detected high radioactivity and demanded to know what was causing it -- was to issue daily radioactive readings from Chernobyl.
But a week after the reluctant Soviet admission that in fact something awful had happened in Chernobyl, the Soviets had not given official radiation readings from the plant site.
Soviet authorities, goaded by the clamor, are saying that the issue is the gross exaggeration of the damage and victims, by westerners trying to make propaganda. That is not the point. The Soviets owed the world an explanation of how and why the accident happened. They did not even want to say when.
Such information as there was about the graphite fire in the reactor came from satellite photos, and western experts had to construct scenarios from the readings they were getting outside laboratory windows.
The panic the Soviets said they wished to avert at home was on in neighboring countries; dumping milk and vegetables, forcing babies to drink iodine. Nobody trusted the Soviet claim of "no big deal."
Jittery, outraged Europe was beginning to see Russia Reagan's way, as the "evil empire" or at least the source of lethal evil. Gorbachev's reputation as an up-front sort of Soviet was destroyed.
Reagan arrived in Tokyo licking his chops. Japanese radicals obligingly fired missiles at summit headquarters, bringing terrorism back into relevance and overshadowing the failure of yet another U.S. space rocket. Reagan could look forward not just to a unanimous summit stand against bomb-throwers, but even to a condemnation of Soviet conduct.
"Moscow disregarded the peril to the rest of the world," he said.
In the long run the Soviet calamity could work against Reagan, nuclear weapons collector and champion of nuclear power.
Reactivated fear of all things nuclear may outlast rage at the Soviets for trying to conceal the consequences.