It pays to heed an old Russian proverb while watching some of the TV coverage of the Reagan/Gorbachev summit:
Trust, but verify.
Many TV reporters and commentators have been careful to separate the critical and difficult issues of the Washington summit from some of the rosy TV pictures that show everyone basking in warm camaraderie worthy of a beer commercial.
"I wouldn't put too much stock in the atmospherics," Sam Donaldson warned on ABC's "Good Morning America" Wednesday.
But one TV picture of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, may nullify a thousand warnings.
A Lesley Stahl anecdote from the 1984 election campaign may apply here. Stahl had been pleased with a devastating report she delivered on "The CBS Evening News" using footage to point out President Reagan's emphasis on patriotic TV images over substance while out on the stump. So she was shocked to get a call later from a Reagan aide who was euphoric about her story.
"They don't listen to you," he said, "if you're contradicting great pictures."
An arguable point, perhaps. Nevertheless, some of those great summit pictures are sometimes misleading.
"Ronald Reagan better find another Errol Flynn . . . because Gorbachev is winning the battle of the photo opportunities," Donaldson noted about the terrific media moves of the Soviet leader.
New words and terms--such as Gorbamania and Gorbasm-- are surfacing to describe the almost frenzied media embrace of the Kremlin leader. In a relatively brief period, he has managed to rebut the enduring Soviet stereotype of the brutal, mindless, oafish skinhead.
The man is good, really good--an instinctive, charming and smooth salesman with just the right package for Western eyes. America saw it when Tom Brokaw interviewed him on NBC last week. The look, the smile and the body language all suggest an ideal combination of strength, intelligence, good humor and sincerity. At times he seems even nice, belying the documented ruthlessness of the regime he heads.
The symbolism helps not only him, but also the Reagan Administration as it seeks to sell arms-reduction agreements with the Soviets to Congress and the American people.
As Gorbachev and the President sat together, a roaring fireplace in the background suggested warmth and humanity. So did the Gorbachevs' televised singing of mournful "Moscow Nights" with pianist Van Cliburn at a posh event at the White House. When they embraced and kissed Cliburn, you wanted to cry.
No one was ever better in front of TV cameras than Gorbachev, moreover, when he addressed invited American celebrities and intelligentsia at the Soviet Embassy, an event carried live on CNN and excerpted on most other newscasts.
ABC's Walt Rodgers called it "just the beginning of the Gorbachev charm campaign to win the hearts and minds of Americans."
Considering the adversarial tradition of the United States and the Soviet Union, it was an extraordinary scene. Gorbachev pulled a Ronald Reagan by reading letters from American children pleading with him to make peace. And he apparently surprised everyone by offering his guests the kind of intimate forum unavailable to Soviet citizens: "This is democracy. Who wants to speak?"
Some of them, such as singer John Denver ("We're all in this together") and actor John Randolph ("We can reach millions of people as communicators") did speak.
The TV symbol that helps soften Gorbachev's image as much as anything, however, is Raisa, if only because she is so externally Westernized (so was Imelda Marcos, don't forget), and because Gorbachev told Brokaw on TV that he tells her everything. Just the way any ordinary guy in Peoria would.
The Kremlin knows that "what works in this country is that you bring your wife," Soviet defector Alexandra Costa told Rona Barrett, who was guest-hosting on CNN's "Larry King Live."
Some members of the media feel so comfortable about Raisa as a Western-style celebrity, in fact, that her alleged feud with Nancy Reagan could make the front page of the National Enquirer any day now. And almost every newscast has included at least one Raisa-versus-Nancy story in its summit collection.
On NBC's "Today" program Wednesday, Jane Pauley noted the media obsession with "the relationships, the comparisons" between the two women and suggested that there was a longing by some of the more predatory media for a "cat fight."
Exactly. The coverage of Raisa Gorbachev and Nancy Reagan has at times been obnoxious and just plain sexist in its stereotypical portrayal of them--at least by implication--as either kaffee klatschers or battling hussies.