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Soviets Arrive Today for Informal Talks With 'Average Joe'

April 30, 1988|DAVID REYES | Times Staff Writer

More than a dozen high-ranking Soviet citizens, including Georgy Arbatov, head of the Soviet Institute for U.S.A. and Canada Studies, will arrive today in Newport Beach to begin private discussions with 25 Americans, including six from Orange County.

The meeting will bring together some of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's top advisers and selected U.S. educators and community leaders to participate in a rare event that will feature informal discussions.

"It is the first time that Soviet delegates to the Dartmouth Conference are going to meet average U.S. citizens. In the past, we've had the experts. But some of our participants for the Orange County forum include college administrators and professors, and also a mechanic from Denver," said Robert Daley, a spokesman for the Kettering Foundation, a public policy research foundation in Dayton, Ohio, which is sponsoring the Orange County forum and also organizes the series of informal U.S.-Soviet talks known as the Dartmouth Conference.

In addition to the Kettering Foundation, the Newport Beach meeting is being sponsored, in part, by the Orange County National Issues Forum, Daley said. The discussions, which begin Sunday at the Newporter Resort with briefings and continue through Monday with remarks by Norman Cousins, follow the 16th Dartmouth Conference, a series of off-the-record, informal talks between leading citizens of the United States and the Soviet Union that concluded Friday at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Tex.

Daley said that although many of President Reagan's Cabinet members are aware of the Texas meeting and the extended trip to Orange County, no members of the U.S. government will participate.

"These talks are strictly informal and unofficial," he said.

The Orange County forum began a year ago as an idea to allow Soviet citizens a chance to speak with the average U.S. citizen, "the average Joe," said Judy Swayne, coordinator of the National Issues Forum in Orange County.

"They wanted a chance to sit and talk with the non-experts who could best express the feelings of why we feel the way we do when it comes to the Russians," Swayne said.

Orange County was selected as forum host, Daley said, because the National Issues Forum here is considered one of the top forum organizations in the country.

As for the Orange County participants, most expressed excitement at the thought of participating in a historic event. Portions of Monday's forum will be taped by public television and condensed into a documentary to be aired May 22, the eve of the U.S.-Soviet summit in Moscow.

In addition, at least six Soviet citizens who are part of the delegation, including Arbatov, were advisers to Gorbachev on the U.S.-Soviet summit held in Washington last December. As a senior aide to Gorbachev, Arbatov is the Soviet's leading specialist on American affairs.

"For me, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said George Kessinger, executive director for Goodwill Industries in Orange County. "I've been getting excited daily just thinking about having conversations with the Russian folks. . . . I'm enough of an idealist to believe that it may eventually lead to something important."

In addition to Kessinger, the participants include Harriett S. Walther, a member of the board of trustees for the Saddleback Community College District; Richard Sneed, Saddleback Community College District chancellor; Thomas Osborne, instructor in American History at Rancho Santiago Community College; Joseph Boyle, political science instructor at Cypress Community College, and Jerry Schwartz, a retired attorney and businessman from Irvine.

Swayne said the six were among a list of forum members and participants who were recommended to the Kettering Foundation, which made the final selections. All had participated in National Issues Forum discussions on U.S.-Soviet relations.

The six representatives Friday expressed a desire to reach common ground with the Soviets and a hope it can lead to eventual lessening of tensions between the two superpowers.

But Kessinger said beliefs about and fears of Communists that developed decades ago die hard.

Kessinger said that at age 46, he is from a generation of Americans who recoiled en masse in 1956 when former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev boasted that "history is on our side. We will bury you," only to be confused by Gorbachev's recent pronouncements favoring glasnost-- or openness.

"I was raised in the hills of Missouri, and I grew up thinking that the Communists are really the bad guys out to get us," Kessinger said. "When Khrushchev meant he was out to bury us, I believed the Communists are the aggressors and that they harbor a natural hate for us. My question that I want to have answered is to find out whether Gorbachev is really a sly fox and moving toward a more free exchange just to get the upper hand and do us in. Or is he really moving for world peace?"

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