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HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES : THE MAN WHO CHANGED THE WORLD : The Lives of Mikhail S. Gorbachev By Gail Sheehy (Harper Collins: $22.95; 432 pp.)

December 16, 1990|Robert Scheer | Scheer, a Times national correspondent, has reported extensively on the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Gorbachev arguably has changed the world more dramatically and with less bloodshed then any leader since Christ, and he certainly deserves something better than Gail Sheehy as a biographer. Hers is a pop-psychology genre of journalism in which the journalist's own odyssey becomes the dominant subject and the historically important figure is reduced to reader bait for the purpose of sales.

The full-throated arrogance of this paltry effort is summarized by Sheehy's boast that "this book is an X-ray of history--some of which I witnessed up close." This from a writer with no knowledge of local languages, barely aware of regional history and who, after a few month-long visits, always accompanied by translators and government-supplied guides, considers herself a regular John Reed in the stormy streets of Petrograd.

What Sheehy has going for her is the strength of her naivete and a commercial hook in recycling the angle of her best-selling "Passages." "I have been undertaking character studies of American and world leaders for many years," she writes. But to know the stages in Gorbachev's life, one has to know something about his country's political history, of which Sheehy is abysmally ignorant.

As a result, the book exudes a breathy, frenetic tone as Sheehy follows one lead after another in her effort to get close to the subject. She never does. Despite (as she reveals in an unnecessary catalogue of her own work habits) getting up before 6 each morning to make calls to the Soviet Union and making frequent dashes after new leads on people who might have known the man himself, she apparently was never in his presence.

But she certainly tried, as she complains over and over. There was even a desperate plane ride back from Moscow to attend a dinner party with wealthy Mort Zuckerman during which she could meet what was to be her key high-placed Soviet contact "pooh-bah," Nikolai Shishlin, a Communist Party Central Committee functionary.

She thinks Shishlin has promised her a Gorbachev interview. Welcome to the club. The list of journalists who think they were promised a Gorbachev interview by Shishlin just in the coffee shop of Washington's Madison Hotel alone now runs in the hundreds. But none of the others have turned that failure of journalistic enterprise into a "character portrait" of Gorbachev.

The search for a journalistic coup then turns desperate. "I was the first print journalist to be taken to the actual site of Gorbachev's childhood home," Sheehy writes. But she doesn't mean the first to visit the village where he grew up. There have been scores of other print and many more television-documentary accounts of this village and interviews with its inhabitants. Sheehy's claimed coup is that she was the "first print reporter" to visit the "white hump of matted mud, dung and straw, with two or three little rooms inside" where Gorbachev was born. The only problem is that she never saw the hut because it's been replaced by a hay field. Once again the exclusive experience is merely a shallow embellishment of journalistic failure.

The danger in this obsession is that information becomes misinformation because too much must be made of each anecdote or historical detail that comes to her attention. Gorbachev, too young to serve in the army, was left behind in an area overrun by the invading Nazis. This well-known fact is rendered as a dark secret by Sheehy to serve the purposes of a character passage: "Even today, members of his own ruling circle were stunned to learn that Gorbachev lived in an area occupied by the German forces." Why stunned? Are members of his ruling circle incapable of reading a map and locating the much-publicized place of his childhood behind the well-marked line of the German advance? This is just silly.

The tour of Gorbachev's life proceeds from the village to Moscow University and back to the village. Sheehy is apparently unaware that she herself was on a well-trodden tour. The Moscow University years once again are seen through the eyes of the group around Gorbachev who have by now told their stories to dozens of visitors, including this one. The stories have been told once too often, and the quotes are just a bit too polished. And Sheehy is biased in deciding which of those quotes to use.

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