Ronald Reagan’s Best Scene

Tuesday, January 30, 2001

My favorite Ronald Reagan story is one he told me himself. It was his account of his private conversation with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on the occasion of their first summit meeting in Geneva in November 1985.

Their formal talks were to be held in a palace on the heights overlooking the lake, but before the official sessions were to begin, the president wanted to have an informal chat with Gorbachev, with only their interpreters present. President Reagan chose a little-used boat house by the lake as the site for this chat. He directed that a fire be lit in the fireplace to take the seasonal chill off the old place.

The two men sat by the fire, at first making small talk and exchanging pleasantries. Then, President Reagan turned the conversation to talk of children. As he had hoped, it seemed to establish some common ground between them. After a time, he turned and stared thoughtfully at the fire. When he turned back to Gorbachev, Reagan looked directly into his eyes and—in what he later described to me as his “most plaintive, wistful tone”—said, “I do hope for the sake of our children that we can find some way to avert this terrible, escalating arms race . . .”

As Reagan paused, Gorbachev—thinking the president had completed his thought—smiled slyly, unable to mask a sudden look of triumph in his eyes. After several seconds, Gorbachev opened his mouth to respond, but before he could, Reagan continued, “. . . because, if we can’t, America will not lose it, I assure you.”

As he waited for the interpreter to translate his words into Russian, the president continued looking into Gorbachev’s eyes—just as he was looking into mine when, years later, he told me this story. Gorbachev met his gaze, but the brief look of triumph had gone from his eyes. He nodded his understanding. After a few moments of silence, President Reagan, assuming the air of genial host, put a friendly hand on Gorbachev’s shoulder and said, “Well, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation, but now I guess we had better get ready for dinner.”

I’m sure the grin he gave Gorbachev at that moment was the easy, warm one he gave me as he told me the story. It was certainly the same grin he had given me when we met at the White House just before he left for Geneva. At that time, he held up a printed blue index card, put it into his inside coat pocket and, patting the pocket, said, “Wilson’s Five Principles—got ’em right here.”

I laughed, slightly embarrassed. In anticipation of the president’s first summit with Gorbachev, liberal Democrats in and outside Congress had let loose a barrage of speeches, op-eds, and other public statements—all urging the president to make, in my opinion, dangerously misguided arms control concessions to Gorbachev. In response to this outpouring of bad advice, I had made a statement on the floor of the Senate urging entirely different counsel. I put forth five principles that I believed should guide U.S. arms control negotiations with the Soviets. Essentially, these urged a tough stance that could fairly—but simply—be characterized as “Don’t give away the store!”

A patriotic organization dedicated to preserving strong defenses for the nation had given wide circulation to my speech and printed the negotiating principles it contained on blue index cards. It was one of those cards that President Reagan had put in his pocket.

I don’t think Ronald Reagan needed that card—or anyone else’s advice—any more than he needed a screenwriter or director for that scene he played with Gorbachev in the boat house by the lake. But I do wish there had been a camera and a sound crew on hand to record it for posterity, for I am convinced that it was that scene that set the stage—and, in fact, created the denouement—for the last act of the 40-year drama we called the “Cold War.”

Of course, there were no cameras, no lights, no sound crew, to capture that scene and replay it to a worldwide audience. There were only four people present at that moment of quiet exchange in the late afternoon chill of a November day: the two principal actors on the world stage and their interpreters. But Ronald Reagan’s performance was compelling to the only audience that mattered. He believed what he said in that simple, unforgettable line declaring unequivocally that America would not lose the arms race. Ronald Reagan believed it, and so did Mikhail Gorbachev. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Ronald Reagan thinks it may have been his best scene. I’m convinced of it.