Boris and Gorby TV show just 2 guys with something to sell Soviet military coup


September 06, 1991|By Michael Hill

It's usually true that those tough-to-get interviews come through only when the elusive subject has something to sell. Warren Beatty becomes available when "Dick Tracy" is about to be released. Madonna can be had when "Truth or Dare" needs to sell tickets.

And so last night Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin brought their much anticipated Russian road show to a two-hour ABC late night news special.

They were selling a lot of things -- their own uneasy alliance, the stability of their country, the genuine nature of the reforms that have taken hold.

But most of all they were selling a perception that in the midst of all this turmoil in what is left of the Soviet Union, a time when true power seems up for grabs on a daily basis, they are still the ones to be reckoned with.

It's almost as if they were looking for one of those "As Seen on TV" stamps for their foreheads. They seemed to be telling the peoples of the various Soviet republics, Hey, ABC and Peter Jennings say we are the guys the world wants to talk to, so it must be true.

The Boris and Gorby show -- originally scheduled for Monday night but postponed until the end of the historic Soviet legislative session -- made it on the air just after midnight in the East after a half-hour of vamping by Jennings while waiting for the stars to take the stage. It was carried in prime time at 9 p.m. on the West Coast.

They spoke for an hour and 15 minutes from an elaborate hall in the Kremlin, answering questions posed by Americans who were standing by at ABC's behest in 10 different cities across the country with Jennings moderating. It came off as sort of a subdued "Donahue" show.

It was clear that the network had selected the audience, getting questions from several Russian emigres, a Cuban exile, and a number of top businessmen, as well as resident Hollywood conservative Ben Stein.

Though the setup had the potential for tedious digressions on hair-splitting special interest concerns, the questions turned out to be quite good, ranging from the status of the Soviet nuclear arsenal to the health of Raisa Gorbachev.

The opener had to do with the relationship between the two men and elicited a candid response about their troubled past. A member of the Olympic organizing committee in Atlanta, which will host the 1996 games, wanted to know if the city should expect one Soviet team or separate squads from the various republics.

The Cuban exile asked about the status of Soviet military aid to that country. A Russian emigre wondered about the KGB files, including, you presumed, his own. There were questions about anti-Semitism, about the status of women in the country, about the two men's personal religious beliefs.

The problem was with the answers. Not that the two men seemed to be hiding anything, or descended into the endless rhetoric that used to characterize conversations with Soviet leaders.

It was simply that for most anything of any substance, they simply did not know what the future would bring, not even what flag this country, or these countries, would have. Time and again, in so many words, the two men had to say, "Those problems are being worked on now."

Through it all, Gorbachev seemed at once at home in the international media spotlight that he has basked in so often, and yet nervous to find it shining on him again as if it might reveal just how precarious his hold on power actually is. He perched on the edge of his chair, proper and dignified and businesslike in his demeanor and responses.

Yeltsin, on the other hand, leaned back in his chair, with the look on his face of the bear who had just swallowed the canary. He doesn't have the polish of Gorbachev, but he does have a certain relaxed, natural, rough charisma that he displayed so well during the abortive coup.

It was Gorbachev's McCartney to Yeltsin's Lennon as Russia and the republics try to sing in harmony. Like the Beatles, they might eventually break up, but the subtle subtext of this joint appearance was that if that happens they will never be as good again.

The dynamic they demonstrated on this program showed that they do need each other. Without the backing of Yeltsin's charismatic populism, always a potent force in times of turmoil, Gorbachev would quickly fall. But without Gorbachev, Yeltsin might have trouble being taken seriously in the international community that he desperately needs to help his economy.

So there they were in the wee hours answering the questions posed by the American audience, hoping that you'd buy not their movie or their book, but their country and its current leadership.

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