Gorbachev: The Odd Obscurity Of The Most Influential Man Since World War Ii

April 21, 1997|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Only a decade ago, Mikhail S. Gorbachev was the single most influential figure on the world stage, the president of the Soviet Union who had the vision to take the lead in ending the Cold War. You could make a case that he did more to change the world than anyone since World War II.

Today Mr. Gorbachev can spend several days in Washington, make a speech in Boston and then another in New Orleans -- all without causing more than a small ripple of attention.

At 66, he is as personally forceful as he always appeared to be. But when he visits the capital these days he meets not with Bill Clinton but with Tim Wirth, undersecretary of state for global affairs, and other subcabinet officials whose portfolios include the environment.

All the extraordinary power Mr. Gorbachev once enjoyed is long gone. Running for president in Russia a year ago, Mr. Gorbachev polled less than 1 percent. He is not a latter-day Winston Churchill waiting only for his countrymen to come to their senses.

He still has a cause

But Mr. Gorbachev is still a man with a cause. As the leader of Green Cross International, a multinational organization devoted to saving the environment, he has a special concern with the environmental aftermath of the nuclear arms race which lasted so long -- essentially until he declared it was all over almost 10 years ago.

His immediate problem here, however, is with helping shore up the U.S. affiliate -- perhaps by enlisting former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as an honorary chairman. "It is very important for me," he says in an interview, "to see this kind of organization here in the United States working effectively."

Talking about protecting the environment, he is as intense and focused as he always seemed to be. What is essential, he says, "is a dialogue between the policy makers, business and the people."

Discussing his own fall from grace at home, he shows an edge of annoyance. To some extent, he says, "It's the stereotype. Too many people think of me as a nonperson in my country, as a kind of exile."

But they are not entirely wrong. "There is," he acknowledges, "an attempt to impose an information blackout against me in Moscow" -- one that means he finds it much easier to appear on talk radio programs than television and much more rewarding to go into the hinterlands with his message. He has been invited, he says, to Belarus and Ukraine, so there are still people who want to hear what he has to say.

Two nations, two opinions

The puzzle about Mr. Gorbachev is, of course, that he is viewed so harshly at home and so warmly in the U.S. His popularity here shows, he says, "the people have confidence the arms race is over and they value that." And in Russia? "People in Russia also value that," he says, but they also blame him for their economic problems.

When Russians now complain about life under President Boris Yeltsin, he says he tells them, "You chose Yeltsin, why should I be responsible? You are not children, you should have been wiser." When they ask him why he allowed Mr. Yeltsin to come to power in the first place -- something he could have prevented when he still held the presidency -- he replies that would have betrayed the whole point of perestroika.

Mr. Gorbachev professes to be undeterred by the harsh verdict against him at the polls a year ago. He says, "I will continue in a new role to try to influence the political process in my own country."

But politics in Russia seems to be conspicuously unforgiving. In the U.S., a politician can be wrong repeatedly and still win a respectable share of the vote; we are partial to underdogs.

So it is difficult for us to understand how far Gorbachev has fallen. He is the one man, more than any other, who has made it possible for this generation and generations to follow to live without the fear of nuclear war that hung over us for almost a half- century.

It seems, nonetheless, that one basic rule of American politics applies, with a vengeance, in Russia: What have you done for me lately?

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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