Washington -- It was an inspiring sight, that toppling of an evil statue. The founder of the Soviet secret police was dragged down in a way that resembled the destruction of King George III's statue in the 18th-century colony of New York.
I wondered what would be our best way to honor that action in Moscow, and decided it would be to efface the name of our secret police's founder. Even Clark Clifford, no radical, has deplored the naming of a building in Washington for J. Edgar Hoover. After all, Hoover spied on American citizens, intimidated American presidents, threatened American prophets (like Dr. King) and violated the American Constitution. We could learn something from the Russian citizens' treatment of their oppressor.
But those most enthusiastic about the dishonoring of the KGB are still willing to honor our FBI in its lawlessness. In the same way, those who vilify the Soviet military behind this recent coup are most anxious to beef up our military in response to the coup. Col. Oliver North, the closest equivalent we have to someone ignoring representative government, is hailed by those who are denouncing the Russian military people who took things into their own hands.
All this points up again the confusion in our use of terms like liberal and conservative to describe what is going on in the Soviet Union. President Mikhail Gorbachev is called conservative because he tries to work with the powers that have been in control up to now, the old revolutionary Bolshevist powers. President Boris Yeltsin is called liberal because he is trying to change things.
Yet American conservatives are on the side of the liberal Mr. Yeltsin; they are angry at Mr. Gorbachev for not having broken entirely with the Communist Party. The man trying to preserve some continuity with the recent past -- a conservative goal in common parlance -- is now a villain to U.S. conservatives such as George Will and Robert Novak, who want instant free markets everywhere, no matter how that disrupts the daily life of people. Conservatism in America is an odd title for a weird crew.
Mr. Gorbachev came under attack for not purging the people in (( power who were sluggish in his own defense. Yet purges were a mark of the Leninist-Stalinist era that we Americans find most repugnant. Avoiding purges -- which are hard to stop -- seems like a conservative goal to those who think in terms of social stability.
That is the giveaway. The ''conservatives'' of America want to destabilize the Soviet Union, to pulverize an alien power. Their talk of freedom is a little lame coming from those who praised such stabilizers in the past as Spain's Franco, the Philippines' Marcos and Cuba's Batista -- rulers whose authoritarian ways were justified so long as they were also anti-communist.
So it is useless to speak of conservatism, freedom or other concrete social goals to American right-wingers who are simply anti-communist, no matter how that posture affects real peoples' real lives. It is strange to find people who could not say enough in praise of Franco telling George Bush that he has not said
enough in dispraise of Mr. Gorbachev. Boris Yeltsin should be wary of all his new friends in Washington.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.