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Reagan, Gorbachev and the PR War: A Matter of Presidential 'Positioning'

May 10, 1987|Kenneth L. Khachigian | Kenneth L. Khachigian, a San Clemente attorney, served as a speech writer for Richard M. Nixon and chief speech writer for Ronald Reagan

SAN CLEMENTE — Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev has been waging--and winning--an international public relations struggle of epic proportions and consequences. Partly by contrast with former aged and drab Soviet leaders, partly because of his engaging one-on-one performances and partly because of his facile command of ideas--he has carved a positive international image beyond his predecessors' wildest dreams.

He has stolen the march on the United States in the latest round of arms-control negotiations. By all accounts, Gorbachev defines the agenda and appears to have staked the high ground of "peacemaker."

Even when Gorbachev does something foolish, he seems to escape unscathed. For example, he told visiting U.S. congressman that the United States should set up separate states for blacks, Puerto Ricans and Polish-Americans. This outrageous pitch for U.S. apartheid barely creased international opinion, whereas Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's slur against American minorities last year resulted in national howls--followed by Nakasone's apology. In contrast, Gorbachev was defended by House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), who said it was all a "misunderstanding." The Gipper should be so lucky.

Gorbachev has parlayed his manipulative abilities into greatly perceived advantages as the United States prepares for what we are hearing is an inevitable summit and arms-control deal this fall.

What's wrong with this, you ask? Who can object to an environment encouraging completion of an arms agreement? The problem--as they say in the advertising biz--is that the President is not "positioned" right. He may achieve a reduction in arms and move the world to greater stability. But then again, he may be confronted with an offer he must refuse. The President has already shown his determination to say "no" to a sucker bet.

This might fly in the face of a public perception of the inevitability of an arms- control agreement. If Reagan concludes his third summit with Gorbachev without a deal--or there is no summit--there is great likelihood of a partisan explosion aimed directly at the President.

Gorbachev has not only focused on the substance of arms control, but its public-relations aspects as well. And with the President suffering painful televised congressional hearings, it is more likely, not less, that his adversaries, foreign and domestic, will seek to take advantage.

This is a rather bleak picture of a White House embattled--its forces arrayed defensively. But one cannot work with Ronald Reagan for long without being infected by his optimism: There's a pony buried somewhere in the manure.

Indeed, what has happened to the Administration on the arms-control issue raises the opportunity for a new White House effort to fashion a counterstrike.

Policies, programs and underlying philosophies in the Reagan years begin and usually end with shots out of the President's rhetorical cannon.

Thus, when his economic and tax initiatives were languishing in the spring of 1981, a dramatic speech before a joint session of Congress--his first appearance after being shot--would do the trick.

In 1984, the White House wanted to promote the President's affinity with education. This was not easy, because there were few new programs. But putting the President on the road, against a series of scholastic and high-tech training backdrops, allowed the public to hear and see him building his case.

On another level, there has been a frequent struggle within the Administration over whether or not Reagan ought to speak on national television for such controversial policies as aid to the contras. Some advisers believe this is an unpopular issue and that personally backing it weakens Reagan's overall support. But following internal debate last year, the activist wing won--and the President, after going on TV, won the vote for military aid . As so often happened in the Administration's early years, Reagan was relied on to make the game-winning shot.

But those were the good old days. Today, the White House must capitalize on a broader, more aggressive use of its resources--not merely to save the Reagan presidency, but to propagate its agenda. Not just to endure, but to triumph.

This proved quite successful for many years during a far more embattled presidency--Richard M. Nixon's. Dealing with a much less congenial environment in Washington and under assault from a shooting war overseas and a weak economy at home, the Nixon White House established elaborate communications and policy teams to overcome the opposition on the outside.

To wage the propaganda campaign over the Vietnam War and build national support, the White House ran, on the premises, a four-man boiler room of experts churning out materials for use by the President, his spokesmen and the platoons of surrogates put into the field.

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