On a March afternoon in Moscow in 1974, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, the late Walter J. Stoessel Jr., drew a visiting friend from Baltimore aside and blurted out his frustrations. He was outside "the Channel," he confided, a supernumerary who just watched as Henry A. Kissinger and Anatoly Dobrynin, his counterpart as Soviet ambassador to the United States, conducted superpower relations over his head.
In his memoirs, Mr. Kissinger confirmed Mr. Stoessel's grievance. "There sprang into existence what came to be known in U.S.-Soviet parlance as 'the Channel,' " he wrote. "Increasingly, the most sensitive business in U.S.-Soviet relations came to be handled by Dobrynin and me."
With the appointment yesterday of Democratic power-broker Robert Strauss as the new U.S. envoy to Moscow, President Bush may have established the framework for a new "Channel." Only this one would operate with the American ambassador as its fulcrum. The play would be Bush-Baker to Strauss to Gorbachev, in contrast to the Nixon-Kissinger to Dobrynin to Brezhnev combination that prevailed in the 1970s. Careerist Viktor Komplektov, the new Soviet ambassador to Washington, is left to contemplate his fate.
That Mr. Bush, Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Ambassador-designate Strauss all hail from Texas only thickens the plot. The president, in announcing Mr. Strauss' appointment, enthused that he is "the right man to represent the United States in this fantastic period." To "guarantee that two ships -- big ships, important ships -- won't pass in the night for lack of understanding" requires an ambassador with "contacts with high officials," the president said.
If it is contacts he wants, Mr. Strauss has them -- including at least two meetings with the Soviet president. The question now is whether Mr. Gorbachev will seek his advice -- as it has repeatedly been sought by American presidents. Mr. Strauss fesses up that all this is very good for his ego -- as, presumably, is his perennial speculation about himself as a might-have-been president.
At 72, he is probably too old, which explains why he touts Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, another Texan, for the 1992 Democratic nomination. Mr. Strauss, himself, has been busy lately as an intermediator in the multi-billion dollar deal through which Japan's giant Matsushita corporation took over MCA-UA, the Hollywood conglomerate. For representing both companies, Mr. Strauss pocketed more than $8 million. "I don't do windows," he said. His confirmation hearings will miss their potential if they don't illuminate this transaction.
Like the Republican president, Mr. Strauss has been the national chairman of his party. The Texas Democrat, however, is not a professional foreign service officer -- usually a prerequite for the Spasso House posting. Evidently, Mr. Bush and Mr. Gorbachev desired a political heavyweight in this "fantastic period." They got one.