In the spy novels, the United States always knows what's going on in the Soviet Union.
We have moles there. Agents in place. Deep cover operatives. In the spy novels.
In real life, however, our government seems to get its information on the Kremlin by watching CNN.
Using the words "murky," "sketchy," and "not clear," President Bush made it apparent that he was murky, sketchy and not clear about what had happened to Mikhail Gorbachev on Monday.
But Bush had a defense. "I think Gorbachev is as surprised as anybody, obviously," he said.
So now our government has that queasy feeling that racetrack fans know so well: the feeling that you have backed the wrong horse.
Trouble is, however, we liked Gorbachev. As a person. And, more importantly, as a personality. It was diplomacy as conceived by People magazine.
The guy dressed nice. Had a cute wife (well, she didn't look like Miss Tractor 1948, anyway). He held press conferences. He leapt from his limo to press the flesh with the crowds that lined the streets to cheer him in Washington.
And it all worked. America loved Gorby.
(And when had we ever used a nickname for a Soviet leader? Had we called Nikita Khrushchev "Nikky?" Or Leonid Brezhnev either "Lenny" or "Breezy?")
Employing that most American of all traits, we made him one of us. He made it easy. The Wall Street Journal reported that he liked "Glenn Miller records, good Scotch whiskey, Oriental rugs and American books." He was younger than our own president by six years, and he always seemed to be the one taking the initiative.
By May 1990, a few days before an historic meeting in Washington between Bush and Gorbachev, a national poll showed a startling shift in American public opinion:
After 40 years of seeing the Soviet Union as their chief enemy, Americans now listed Japan, Latin American drug runners and international terrorists as "the greatest threat to U.S. security."
The Soviet Union? Hey, these guys and gals weren't so different from us. They even had a McDonald's!
Tourism boomed. Henry Allen of the Washington Post quoted one American travel agent as saying: "Everything Soviet is suddenly very romantic. Everybody's into it."
And Betty Bumpers, president of Peace Links and wife of U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers, said: "I don't know whether it's Raisa's influence or the fact that there is a lot more exposure because Americans are everywhere, but the Soviet women are dressing better, their haircuts are better, there is definitely a difference in how they look."
And that is what mattered. Sure there were disturbing stories about unrest in the Soviet Union -- the haircut factor did not
seem to make much difference in the food lines -- but that was only because the Soviets didn't appreciate what they had.
They had a star. One who was not only changing the face of his country, but ours. Before the Persian Gulf war, there was even talk in this country of a peace dividend: Taking the money we spent defending ourselves against the Soviet menace and spending it domestically instead. The Soviet menace? The very phrase took on a laughable connotation.
And some remembered the words of Georgy Arbatov, the Soviet Union's top expert on the United States, who had said: "We are going to do something terrible to you -- we will deprive you of your enemy."
Well, we don't have to worry about that any more. The enemies are back. The guys in the lumpy gray suits that look like they last nTC held cement are back. Tanks and armored personnel carriers are in the streets of Moscow. A "Committee of Eight" comprises a "State Commitee for the State of Emergency." Gorbachev is "ill" and confined somewhere in the Soviet Union to "rest."
We thought Gorbachev was the last Russian name we were going to have to learn for a while. Now, all of a sudden, there is a new one: Gennady Yanayev.
Who is he? He is the vice president that Gorby hand-picked from among the hard-liners, insisted on, fought for. "I want somebody beside me I can trust," Gorbachev said.
Bad move, Gorby. How much better off you would have been not just to study American music and hairstyles, but also to study American politics: The first lesson over here is always pick a vice president whom nobody could possibly want as president.
Which reminds me of what worries me most about this crisis: As I watch George Bush hurrying back and forth between Kennebunkport and Washington, giving press conferences here and there, the same thought keeps striking me: How suddenly old he looks. He looks 10 years older than he looked two years ago. His face is deeply lined. He looks tired, gaunt, worn.
So as serious as these current events are, I hope he finds time for some genuine rest in the next few days.
Having the vice president take over in the Soviet Union is a crisis. Having the vice president take over in the United States would be a tragedy.