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Midnight Surprise : Reagans Go for Stroll in Red Square

June 02, 1988|JAMES GERSTENZANG | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Holding hands in the warm spring air of the Moscow night, President Reagan and his wife, Nancy, paid an extraordinary surprise visit near midnight Wednesday to magnificent, floodlit Red Square.

With the onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral reaching into the darkness, the President pointed out the major sites--the red marble of Lenin's Tomb, the pink brick of the Kremlin Wall--that he had seen the day before on a daytime stroll with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

"Nancy hadn't seen it," said the President as he strolled over the paving stones of the huge square along one side of the Kremlin. "We're leaving tomorrow, and I didn't want her to miss it."

Impact on Reagan's Attitude

The late-night excursion provided one more dramatic illustration of the stunning impact that his visit here has had on the President's attitude toward all things Soviet. After four days in the capital, Ronald Reagan, the man who once called the Soviet Union an "evil empire," had become a tour guide.

To be sure, on the bedrock issues of national security, the President who spoke at a news conference Wednesday afternoon was every bit the same one who has steadfastly refused to retreat from his vision of "Star Wars" in arms control negotiations.

But if Reagan's first look at Moscow and its people did not change his views on superpower relations, it had a measurable impact on how he views the nation that he regards as America's chief world adversary. Whether that will ultimately influence U.S. policy, Reagan's view of Russia and the Russians has changed forever.

By all accounts, the President is someone for whom visual impressions, telling anecdotes and personal experiences help form the man who creates the policy. Such incidents have "a tremendous impact on him," said a former senior aide who has kept in contact with the President and First Lady.

'Tends to Like People'

"He tends to like people. He trusts them. If somebody is nice to him, he's nice to them in turn," the former aide said.

As a former actor, Reagan also responds to a friendly audience, this source said, adding: "He turns on--it's the crowd, it's the applause, it's the cheers."

And that is just what Reagan encountered on these warm, clear days in Moscow--its leafy poplars and birches and its green lawns and shining golden dandelions presenting a cheery contrast with the popular image of a dour, frozen city struggling through constant snows.

Reagan is heading home Friday, after a stop today in London, much as he did four years ago after his first trip to the People's Republic of China, when he was so enthusiastic about the changes occurring there that he talked about the "so-called Communist China."

Now he again appears to be turning two decades of rhetoric upside down.

'Fundamental Human Warmth'

"You see it in his own remarks, his own expressions," said a senior Administration official traveling with the President. "It's the fundamental human warmth. It's seeing something for the first time. It's the personal reaction to human beings."

And, he said, the public expression of Reagan's apparently relaxed attitude toward the Soviet people is being duplicated in his private conversations with staff members.

More than once, the President marveled with aides at the reaction he has seen on the streets: crowds applauding and even clasping their hands overhead in the victory salute of a championship boxer.

"I think he definitely comes away with a different feeling about the place than he came in with," said the White House aide. "Some of his presumptions (about the Soviet Union) have not been fulfilled. He's been thrilled by the reaction. It's surprised him. It's heartened him. The friendliness has literally overwhelmed him."

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