There was an interesting op-ed piece by James Mann in the LA Times on Friday arguing that President Reagan's behind-the-scenes courting of President Gorbachev was much more important in causing the Berlin Wall to fall, than was Reagan's famous speech in June of 1987, in which Reagan called out, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Prior to that speech, Reagan had already shifted his emphasis from his "evil empire" rhetoric toward building a constructive relationship with a by-now trusted reformer in the Soviet Union. And it was Gorbachev's parallel trust in building a different relationship with the United States, Mann argues, that led Gorbachev to decide not to intervene when the East German authorities asked what they should do about the crowds of people streaming across the wall twenty years ago.
The purpose of the speech, according to Mann, was not so much to intimidate the Soviet Union or the East German government, as it was to satisfy Reagan's supporters in the United States. And even now, conservatives love to talk about how Reagan's arms build-up and tough talk against the evil empire caused the United States to win the Cold War, but they downplay the quiet diplomacy that was going on behind the scenes. They sometimes forget that President Reagan often took such a pro-Gorbachev line while he was president that he alarmed hard-liners both inside and outside his administration at the time. In fact, talking tough while making quiet compromises behind the scenes was entirely characteristic of Reagan, who also made pragmatic compromises on domestic policy, while engaging in tough anti-government rhetoric to placate his supporters.
President Obama has talked about President Reagan's effectiveness in making change. Obama also displays an ability to use soaring rhetoric to try to keep his supporters happy, while making the compromises necessary to govern. Getting health care reform through the Congress requires just that kind of balancing act. Similarly, in dealing with a continuing economic crisis, President Obama needs to placate Americans' anger at Wall Street bailouts, while at the same time reassuring Wall Street that this country's financial system will remain profitable, so that the economy will grow its way out of this recession. The job requires the same kind of finesse that Reagan displayed twenty years ago.
(photo from Europske Mesto)