Gorbachev's U.S. Visit to Reflect Changed Times : Summit: Talks on logistics reveal shifts in the two nations' relationship and their leaders' fortunes.


The Soviet advancemen were adamant: They wanted their leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, to address a joint session of Congress.

Ronald Reagan's White House aides were just as adamant: They feared Congress would offer too big a stage for the visiting Soviet leader, which might only make it harder to be tough in negotiations later.

How was the stalemate resolved? Colin L. Powell, Reagan's national security adviser, presented the Soviet ambassador with a videotape of Reagan's 1987 State of the Union Address, at which the President was given a not-entirely-friendly reception at the height of the Iran-Contra scandal.

The Soviets needed no more convincing. If they wanted to create for their American audience a more human impression of this new Soviet leader, Capitol Hill might be too unpredictable a place to do it.

Now, 2 1/2 years later, Soviet and U.S. officials are once again preparing for a high-stakes, high-visibility visit to Washington by the Soviet leader--now President Gorbachev but ever more embattled. And this time, the pre-summit negotiations over logistics reveal not only the shifts in the superpowers' relationship but a drastic switch in the fortunes of the two countries' leaders.

For one, the talks that Gorbachev and Bush will begin next Thursday are not being portrayed by the White House as between "old enemies," as the December, 1987, Reagan-Gorbachev sessions in Washington had been. Instead, the Bush Administration believes its interests lie in helping a troubled Soviet leader stay in power.

And unlike Reagan, who used the summit to portray himself as a tough commander in chief to counter the Iran-Contra scandal, Bush is riding a crest of popularity that minimizes the risks of this meeting. A freewheeling Gorbachev wowing the crowds "is not a problem at all--it's a benefit to us," White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said. "The changes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union have made us a lot more interested in Gorbachev presenting himself to the American people and generating approval because we approve of what he's doing."

In these days of the lifted Iron Curtain, Bush is given to asking the rhetorical question, "Who is the enemy now?" His answer is: "Instability and uncertainty." So, six days before Gorbachev arrives in the United States, officials here say the overriding goal of the approaching summit is to achieve a sense of stability and certainty in relations with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

"That would be the message--that Gorbachev and Bush are on top of their games and have a strong sense of direction and a plan for re-establishing the East-West relationship," Fitzwater said.

White House officials are quick to point out that the interests of the two countries' leaders are converging, to the point that any support Gorbachev can generate in this country serves to validate Bush's own tacit support for the Soviet leader's insistence that secessionists in the three Baltic republics follow a snail's pace toward independence.

Actually, the White House is finding that as diplomatic host it has little leverage over its guest's schedule, just as the Soviets learned when Reagan visited Moscow in 1988.

Reagan wandered down the Arbat, Moscow's prime free-market shopping strip, and delivered a speech to students and faculty at Moscow State University to reinforce his private message touting the need for enhanced economic and political rights across the Soviet Union.

Much as Reagan used Moscow's streets as a stage to spotlight the themes he was raising in private, "I expect Gorbachev will do the same thing here," Fitzwater said.

Indeed, the White House set up a schedule that would have kept Gorbachev in Washington or Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. But the Soviets announced that Gorbachev would go home via Minnesota and San Francisco, providing opportunities for him to deliver his messages directly to the American public.

In the view of U.S. officials, it would not be surprising if he received Angela Davis, the well-known American Communist activist, and other American Communists, just to twit the United States, much as Secretary of State James A. Baker III met with Lithuanian Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene last week in Moscow. And Gorbachev is expected to meet U.S. businessmen in hopes of luring them to invest in the Soviet Union, and with Democrats, to play them politically against the White House.

At the White House, officials say they are not bothered.

"The President will always be in the mix. It won't look like the President has dropped from the scene and Gorbachev has the stage to himself," said one senior Bush aide.

Far from being worried that Gorbachev might generate so much American public support that it would harm the American ability to negotiate with him, a senior White House official said, "The biggest fear now is he will do public events and be confronted with a backlash" as a result of his effort to stifle the secessionist movements in the Baltic republics.

As for Gorbachev's own summit goals, one influential U.S. official said, "He wants to show (that) the relationship with the West, particularly the United States, is good."

"Gorbachev's problem," said the official, whose views have helped shape Bush's preparations for the summit, "is that he has been to summits since 1985, so it's no novelty to Soviet citizens.

"His risk is that it might go badly," the official said. "The potential is for a greater negative impact than a positive one. So we'll see no Reykjavik. Maybe a small surprise or two, but nothing that could backfire badly."

(It was at the 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, that Gorbachev tried to get Reagan to ban all strategic nuclear weapons by one great stroke of a pen.)

For its part, the White House is making every effort to counter the impression that Gorbachev's visit is a major event by stressing that it is being handled as a "normal" state visit. The Soviet leader is being welcomed to the White House on Thursday, May 31 at 10 a.m.--the same hour at which less significant state visits routinely begin. A state dinner will be given at the White House that evening, as it is by tradition for visiting heads of state.

When Gorbachev last visited the White House, Reagan's aides were careful to arrange photo sessions that helped portray the President as a commander in charge of his troops and capable of leading. The private White House agenda in the 1987 summit, said one former White House official involved in setting it up, was to boost Reagan's image as a leader.

Such is not the case this time around.

"There isn't anything from a public relations sense that we're trying to do similar to those events in '87," Fitzwater said. "Our Administration's not into that."

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