Around this time of year, we wait in eager anticipation for that jolly, smiling, generous visitor from frigid climes. He came, we saw, he conquered. No, not Santa Claus - Gorba Claus. The media went bananas when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made his recent whirlwind tour of New York.
You don't want to begrudge anybody for seizing at signs of hope. But maybe TV journalists seize too eagerly where a phenomenon like Gorbachev is concerned. In a case like this, excessive coverage is also defensive coverage; no one wants to be accused later of having underplayed the event.Nobody underplayed the event.
Even Hollywood has flipped. In an episode of ABC's "Head of the Class" taped in Moscow and shown in November, Gorbachev was spoken of with rapt awe and reverence. If the kids in the show had expressed a similar attitude toward their American President, everybody would have dismissed it as impossibly corny and naive.
Gorby could do no wrong during his New York spin. He certainly showed he knew his way around a photo opportunski, posing with Ronald Reagan and George Bush - for TV and for front pages around the world - within the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. The symbolism of this moment probably had as much impact as Gorbachev's entire lengthy speech at the United Nations. Few people saw the speech; everyone saw that image.
Truth be told, although Raisa Gorbachev has a rather compelling tightly coiled cool about her, Mikhail is no telegenic swell fella. He's only easy going and accessible compared with previous Soviet leaders, not compared with most politicians we're used to seeing on TV. He's Commie Nouveau, and it gets a little tiresome the way the network lemmings make such a gushing fuss over him.
On the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, Gorbachev stood stiff and expressionless, bundled up in a grim gray overcoat and scarf even though he was indoors. Phillip Kaltenbacher, chairman of the Port Authority, rattled on about what an honor, what a pleasure, what a thrill, it was to have him here.
All very nice, if unexciting, civic ceremony stuff, except when Mrs. Gorbachev was handed a bunch of roses, she said through her interpreter, with disarming sweetness, "May there always be such flowers on this earth." Perfect.
Barbara Walters was willingly pressed into service by ABC News after she attended the Raisa Gorbachev luncheon. She debriefed fellow reporters and was on the air talking to Peter Jennings for six minutes. Walters had even become embroiled in the germ of an argument. Well, a difference of opinion.
"Mrs. Gorbachev said something about how we have to open more doors between our two countries, be more open with each other," Walters recalled later from ABC News headquarters. "And Mrs. Reagan and I said at the same time, `But haven't we been?' That's what the President has been trying to do. Mrs. Gorbachev just continued on. She didn't say `yes' to us. Maybe something got lost in the translation; it happens.
"So she went on some more about how we `should' be more open, and Mrs. Reagan spoke up again. There was a little tension, that's all. If anybody expected sparks or anger, there was none."
Walters says she did not buttonhole Mrs. G and ask for an exclusive interview. "I didn't discuss it with her at all. I was invited privately to the luncheon, and I didn't think it would be right." She'd met her before.
"She is direct. She says her piece, and that's it. She can smile and be charming, but there's not a lot of small talk. She wants to discuss matters of substance. She doesn't want to sit around over coffee and chat. In fact she ran off from the luncheon table to go to Estee Lauder, which came as something of a surprise to the rest of us," Walters said.
For all the advance warning about Gorby Gridlock in New York, film crews interviewing drivers found there to be no great complaint. A sanguine glow did seem to overcome people, even nasty New Yorkers, even journalists, not so much because of Gorbachev's announcement of troop reductions but just because of his presence again on U.S. soil and what that seemed to represent.
And because Reagan looked so happy and proud, more like a mayor than a President perhaps. Maybe that's what he's really been these eight years: a national mayor.