We had firelight in Geneva, tempest in Malta. Will this one be the "Twin Peaks" summit, named after the television serial that is wrapped in mists and mystery? This could be the one for questions, not answers.
The Soviet Union has officially given up being "the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" of Churchill's formulation, but it still can be hard to figure.
Why, for instance, does the Soviet parliament decline to pass the emigration bill that would -- theoretically, at least -- open the way for Most Favored Nation trade status? MFN won't help in the current food crisis in Moscow. It won't put bread on the table or stock the shelves. But down the road it could make a difference, and getting it would be a much-needed victory for Mikhail Gorbachev. The man comes to Washington without a card in his hand.
The bill is not controversial. It passed a first reading without incident. But it has been yanked from the calendar.
Now the Soviet experts, who have been regaling the press this week with the real scoop on the Kremlin, and their American counterparts are putting out the same unconvincing mumble: domestic priorities supersede everything.
Some suggest the problem is that the Soviets think the bill would not bring them MFN, that President Bush's real reason for withholding it is Gorbachev's harsh treatment of the Lithuanians. But cutting off gas to Lithuania invites comparison with China, which Bush rewarded with MFN despite the bloody massacre of just a year ago -- and every indication that China would do it again. Maybe Gorbachev will level with us on this intriguing question.
And why do Bush and Gorbachev each insist that he can bring the other around on the difficult issue of German unification?
Bush is determined to bring a reunified Germany into NATO. Gorbachev is incensed at the idea. NATO, he told Time magazine, is a symbol of the bad old days of the Cold War and confrontation. He, of course, is speaking for a nation that lost 27 million people to the Nazis in World War II. Bush speaks as one who believes that the Germans have kicked the habit of trying to conquer the world, and that a "whole and free" Europe needs tangible reassurance of an enduring U.S. interest.
Gorbachev comes as the representative of a country that has changed beyond recognition. The Soviet panels that gathered at the National Press Club to answer all the questions reporters could think of are living proof that if perestroika is still at the starting gate, glasnost is galloping. Official government spokesmen spouted ideas and words that five years ago would have landed them in Lubyanka Prison.
At a session devoted to the economic aspects of the summit, one economist said that the panic buying in Moscow, as shown on television, is exaggerated.
"Two years ago, the disintegration of our food supply occurred," he explained. It was an admission that would have been treated as high treason in pre-Gorbachev days, and, as a matter of fact, any U.S. official dispensing that kind of candor could have well expected a pink slip.
The great god state is now a humble maidservant, to be cuffed into line.
"We can and should be criticized for not acting sooner," said another economist, speaking of a delay in converting to a market economy.
"We do not have proper storage or processing facilities," another admitted.
The week's first panel was devoted to culture and the summit. The air was heady as the panelists told of wonderful changes in the lives of the intelligentsia. You can't buy shoes, you can't buy bread, but you can speak your mind, and that, to them, it seems, is worth it all.
It was easy to understand in the case of Dmitri Likhachev, a preeminent expert on Old Russian literature. Likhachev is 83, has mild blue eyes and a benevolent expression. He is said to be a Sakharov-like figure. As a young man of 21, he was arrested by Stalin's KGB, sent to the gulag.
Why? He was never charged, never tried. "They don't like my face."
After 4 1/2 years, he was let go by Stalin, who was pleased at his work on the canal from the White Sea to the Baltic. From Likhachev's perspective, life in the Soviet Union is beautiful.
It is easy to make a litany of Gorbachev's woes. They are many and genuine. The election of Boris Yeltsin reached across the sea to shadow his arrival in Canada. Ironically, Yeltsin heckles him to move faster on the reforms that alienate the Soviet people.
The prospects for enhancing stature at home seem dim. But Gorbachev is among friends; his standing in the polls here equals Bush's. If the Democrats could, they would collar him to be their nominee.