WASHINGTON — Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide/
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side.
Washington -- Alexander Bessmertnykh's moment came Aug. and he flubbed it. The Soviet foreign minister didn't side with the coup, but he didn't side against it. At first, when the smoke cleared, he said he had been ill, and then he said he had decided to ''silently oppose'' it. Mikhail Gorbachev was not convinced. He fired Mr. Bessmertnykh for ''maneuvering.''
The Agony of Bessmertnykh was an exquisite footnote to the drama of Coup Week. Ted Koppel and the ABC cameras were in the room as Mr. Bessmertnykh phoned Secretary of State Baker -- ''Hello, Jim?'' -- with the news, and you could see his bewilderment. You never know when history is going to run you over like a tank. He probably thought that anyone who jets around the world on important diplomatic missions and chats on first-name basis with ''Jim'' and ''Ted'' is beyond facing life-wrenching moral choices. He was wrong.
Listening to George Bush sermonize about democracy from the golf course and reading smug editorials about the failed coup in the newspapers, you would think everyone in America has total self-confidence about choosing the right side if history pops up demanding a choice. But I can't help wondering who among our own leaders would be clambering onto a tank like Boris Yeltsin and who would be taking to his bed like Alexander Bessmertnykh. ''Give me liberty or give me death,'' declared Ambassador Robert Strauss at a coup martyr's funeral -- but he was safely quoting Patrick Henry. Would George Bush play the hero? Wouldn't be prudent.
About the only current or recent American politician I can imagine with any confidence standing on a tank and facing down an army in the name of democracy is Ronald Reagan. And he'd do it in a movie, only convincing himself in hindsight that it had happened in real life.
The ugliest aspect of the moral smugness these days in Washington is the cheap belittling of Mikhail Gorbachev. Whatever your analysis of the past six years, his courage during the coup itself was impeccable. ''The hell with you,'' he told the plotters when they offered him a face-saving -- and possibly life-saving -- proclamation to sign. He said he'd rather die than cooperate, which realistically put his own life on the line (and his family's too) at least as much as Boris Yeltsin did. Would you -- or your senator -- have done the same?
Of course the sneering at Mikhail Gorbachev has been going on in some circles since 1985. Only the terms of the sneer have changed. For the first four years or so he was an evil genius conning the West with Potemkin reforms. Then, as the reality of the changes in the Soviet bloc became undeniable, they also became historically inevitable and Mr. Gorbachev was demoted from evil genius to irrelevant and incompetent bumbler who had nothing to do with them or even stood in their way.
Where was Boris Yeltsin in 1985? He was First Secretary of the Sverdlovsk Regional Party Committee and a committed careerist apparatchik. According to Leon Aron of the Heritage Foundation, an ardent admirer of Mr. Yeltsin who is writing his biography, Mr. Gorbachev's thinking was far ahead of Mr. Yeltsin's at that point. Gorbachev not only made Mr. Yeltsin's reforms possible; he made Mr. Yeltsin's very thinking possible.
Mr. Gorbachev's moment may be past. He may have been, in the popular dismissive phrase, a ''transitional figure.'' So was Moses, another guy who never managed to lead his people into the promised land. But can you name the fellow who did?
And couldn't we use a ''transitional figure'' or two in this country? We sit in here in comfort handicapping Messrs. Gorbachev and Yeltsin, while we have no one to compare in vision or courage to either one of them. Mikhail Gorbachev is criticized for his inability to fully abandon a lifetime of Communist beliefs; George Bush has no beliefs serious enough to be worth abandoning. Boris Yeltsin faces down the Soviet army in the name of democracy; in America, where democracy is secure, the leading Democrats all shy away from facing down George Bush.
Between them, Messrs. Gorbachev and Yeltsin have taken on every institution of Soviet totalitarianism. In this country, no politician will even take on the American Association of Retired Persons.
To be sure, America is fortunate enough not to need political heroes of that order. Our problems aren't so big. But the less heroism that is required, the more depressing it is that even a small scrap of heroism isn't available.
It will be interesting to see how the debate progresses from here about financial aid. It is past the point where opponents of aid can argue that the Soviets are not yet committed to serious economic reform. It is almost past the point where opponents can argue that there are no democratic governments to receive the money. The question will soon be unavoidable whether we feel like giving the money, period.
Are we prepared to make some small sacrifice to reward and encourage people who are making far greater sacrifices to achieve the ideals of democracy and free markets that we babble about? Or are we content to just watch heroism on TV?
TRB wrote this commentary for The New Republic.