The Washington Summit : Briefings Put Deft, Dapper Soviet Spokesman in Limelight
Until President Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev come down from the summit to tell their own tale of their negotiations, the world will rely upon Marlin Fitzwater and Gennady I. Gerasimov, who made their first tandem appearance before an international news media horde on Monday.
“Anchormen of America, look out,” said White House spokesman Fitzwater as he introduced Gerasimov, his Soviet counterpart, to thousands of reporters and photographers, then watched with relish as the suave Soviet spokesman carefully fended off the first barrage of questions.
The consolidation of the American and Soviet press briefings in the ballroom of the J.W. Marriott Hotel, three blocks from the White House, came after more than a week of separate, incessant briefings, with the two sides competing for an enormous world-wide audience.
Although the Soviets began adopting Western-style press relations techniques at the two previous Reagan-Gorbachev summits, they have in recent days stepped out to fully match the Reagan Administration, stride for stride, as evidenced by Gerasimov’s sharing the briefing podium twice a day with the chief spokesman for the White House.
A stranger to the cast could have mistaken the American and the Russian when Fitzwater and Gerasimov showed up for their first joint briefing of the three-day summit.
Bald, Beefy, Red-Faced
The White House spokesman is bald, beefy, red-faced and sartorially indifferent, if not reckless. Gerasimov, who has moved from one American television program to another in recent days, might have stepped from the pages of Esquire.
He was impeccably dressed, from his gray-striped suit to his wing-tipped shoes and the red “power tie” favored by Washington politicians. His hair was blown dry, and his face was lightly covered with pancake makeup.
Gerasimov deftly turned aside every question on the controversy over interpretation of the previous U.S.-Soviet treaties, and dodged queries on the identity of American businessmen invited to meet here with the Soviet leader. He would not criticize the 200,000 American Jews who gathered here Sunday to protest Soviet restrictions on Jewish emigration, but he suggested that Palestinians might have equal cause to march for human rights.
He fended off questions on Afghanistan, showing no irritation when he was asked, “How many more Afghans do you have to kill before you stop the war in Afghanistan?”
And he good naturedly stonewalled a brief barrage of questions on the activities of Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa.
Q. “Mr. Gerasimov, can you give us details of Mrs. Gorbachev’s visit, please?”
A. “Well, part of her schedule will coincide with the general secretary’s (Gorbachev’s) schedule. Also, she will visit certain places in Washington. . . .”
Q. “Which places?”
A. “She will be invited to tea parties.”
Q. “What tea parties, where? Is she going shopping?”
A. “It is not on the program.”
Q. “Fill us in. What is on her schedule? What is she doing?”
A. “She will be pretty busy. . . .”
More than anyone except Gorbachev himself, Gerasimov is in the vanguard of the Soviet effort to put forth a positive image while the world’s attention is focused on the meetings at the White House.
He has become, perhaps, the most visible press spokesman in Soviet history. Although Moscow correspondents often find him less affable than he was while on public display Monday, he is still a breed apart from the hectoring party officials who used to deal with the foreign press in Moscow and speak for leaders traveling abroad.
Although he is nominally the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, his duties extend beyond his twice weekly briefings on ministry matters to take questions concerning not only Gorbachev but the wife of the Soviet leader as well.
Knowing that American correspondents often have no more than rudimentary knowledge of the Russian language, he sometimes interrupts his Moscow briefings to put important phrases into English, occasionally making a point of using the American idiom.
Now 57, he was editor of the Moscow News, a publication aimed chiefly at foreigners, before joining the Foreign Ministry a few years ago, and before that he was for several years a correspondent in New York for Novosti, the Soviet news feature service.
The notion of having the chief American and Soviet spokesmen address the international press on the same occasion and from the same podium is not new. It was tried at least once before, when President John F. Kennedy met with Nikita S. Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961.
This time, the idea came from Fitzwater, a professional government spokesman who has served every presidential administration since Lyndon B. Johnson’s, as a civil servant until he became a political appointee in the Reagan Administration’s Treasury Department.
At the White House, he succeeded Larry Speakes, who had become distant and querulous during his last months in the White House press office. Fitzwater, who took over in February, is regarded more as a savvy bureaucrat than a master of public relations.
Soviet Reporters Silent
On the first day of their joint press conferences, it was Gerasimov who was in the sights of the American press while the Soviet correspondents were, for the most part, silent. “It’s a new forum for them,” said Fitzwater. “I guess by the end of the week, they’ll be asking questions.”
With Gorbachev still in the air on his flight to the United States when the two spokesmen met with the press on Monday, there was as yet no occasion for them to differ. But Fitzwater later acknowledged he anticipated there would be times later in the week when the atmosphere will not be as congenial.
Borrowing a page from football coaches, he said he had watched film of Gerasimov in action and had consulted with State Department spokesman Charles Redman, who had shared platforms with the Soviet press spokesman in Moscow.
“It just seemed natural in this setting,” he said Monday of the joint affair. “It keeps us from arguing across town.”