The Washington Post reports tributes to Reagan's "willingness to cooperate with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in reducing the threat from nuclear weapons." Notice the phrase, "willingness to cooperate." The New York Times headlined Mikhail Gorbachev's Monday op-ed, "A President Who Listened." Not A President Who Led, but A President Who Listened.
Reagan was a giant in the company of dwarves. Yet the dwarves are still deluded, still convinced their "sophistication" is superior to his "simplicity." Casting about for words of faux praise, they end up patronizing Reagan. They can't quite bring themselves to admit that he was right and they were wrong -- that the clear-eyed conservatism they despised in him won the Cold War.
The New York Times editorialized that Reagan was "fortunate" that a visionary like Gorbachev appeared on the scene to walk the world toward peace. "He was fortunate to have as his counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, a Soviet leader ready to acknowledge his society's failings and interested in reducing international tensions," the Times wrote.
Gorbachev's op-ed was equally nauseating. It might as well have been headlined, "A President Who Listened To Me." Gorbachev allows himself a moment of self-congratulation, "Of course, the new Soviet leadership could have continued the old ways." This is like a thief patting himself on the back for giving up theft.
Gorbachev took a "new path," because Reagan had successfully blocked off the old one. Even in this encomium to Reagan, Gorbachev can't resist one last burst of resentment at Reagan for his "evil empire" truth-telling. Gorbachev writes of Reagan's "confrontational rhetoric toward the Soviet Union, and more than rhetoric -- by a number of actions that caused concern both in our country and among many people throughout the world."
If Gorbachev still smarts over Reagan's accurate assessment of the "evil empire, "that's because Gorbachev was part of it. When Gorbachev dies, will newspapers like the Times -- which praise Reagan in between plenty of hedges and qualifications -- offer similar qualifications in obits about Gorbachev? Will they record, for example, that he supported persecuting the kulaks?
Before it was fashionable to treat Gorbachev as an oracle of bottomless moral authority, press accounts would acknowledge that he had been a Stalinist (When that was de rigueur in the Soviet Union, he penned essays on the glories of Stalinism) and a supporter of Lenin's "one step forward, two steps back" doctrine. As a party hack on the rise, Gorbachev had no problem implementing ruthless Communist policies (such as ousting from schools children whose parents had committed ideological sins). Back in the 1980s Time magazine quoted a Soviet who remembered Gorbachev explaining to him the importance of "brute force, which alone secured working discipline on the working farms." Even when Gorbachev was supposedly on his new path, he was pining for the old one. "In politics and ideology, we are seeking to revive the spirit of Leninism," Gorbachev wrote in Perestroika. As Baltic nationalists remember, Gorbachev didn't want the evil empire to break up. He sought to preserve it aggressively, sending off checks to thuggish Soviet client states until the treasury ran dry.
As a disciple of Lenin, Gorbachev should remember Lenin's phrase, "useful idiots." Lenin, had he witnessed the demise of Communism, would have called Gorbachev Reagan's useful idiot. Contrary to Gorbachev's patronizing -- in his second term, writes Gorbachev, Reagan "emphasized a different set of goals. I think he understood that it is the peacemakers, above all, who earn a place in history" -- Reagan gently pulled a frightened Gorbachev toward peace. Reagan's gentility was a function of his strength. He didn't mind letting Gorbachev wallow in his own vanity and delusion if that made it easier to end the Cold War and dismember the Soviet Union.
Historians won't pay much attention to Gorbachev's self-justifying remembrances. But they will record Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." The irony of Reagan never caring about who got the credit is that history will heap it on him while ignoring those who did.
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